Bangladesh has ordered cellphone operators to block internet access to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees sheltering at camps in the southeast, government officials said, citing national security and a need to maintain law and order.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) also asked mobile phone providers to stop selling cell phone SIM cards to the refugees in line with the government’s instructions, said Mohamad Johurul Haque, the agency’s chairman.
“The Rohingya are not entitled to use Bangladeshi SIM cards. But they have been using a huge number of mobile SIM cards in and around the camps,” he told BenarNews on Tuesday, referring to telecommunications regulations stipulating that only people with passports or national ID cards are allowed to have mobile phones in the country.
“We have instructed the mobile phone operators to stop selling SIM cards to the Rohingya,” he said.
On Sunday, the BTRC issued its order to phone service providers “to ensure that Rohingya people will not get any facility of using mobile phones.”
“For national security, and for the law and order situation and for public interest … we are asking you [mobile phone operators] to submit a report within seven days on stopping mobile SIM selling in Rohingya camps and on stopping use of mobile phones by Rohingya,” BRTC Deputy Director Md. Nahidul Hasan said in his order without being specific.
The order came a week after tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees rallied in southeastern Bangladesh to mark the second anniversary of a brutal military offensive that forced them to flee Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Authorities have detected that 900,000 mobile phone SIM cards were being used by the refugees “in and around the Rohingya camps,” Haque said.
“We have not deactivated the illegal SIM cards used by the Rohingya,” he said, “but we have asked the companies to stop 3G and 4G mobile service around the Rohingya camps between 5 p.m. and 6 a.m. every day so that they cannot have internet service.”
The government’s move surprised and dismayed many refugee leaders.
“Mobile phones and internet help us to get information from Arakan. Unless we get information from our relatives, how can we come to know the actual situation there?” Ilias Hossain, a Rohingya leader in Cox’s Bazar district, told BenarNews, using the Rohingya term for Rakhine state.
“If we do not get information, how can we decide to go back?” he said.
The cellphone ban came almost two weeks after a second attempt by Naypyidaw and Dhaka to repatriate thousands of Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar collapsed. Bangladeshi officials said none of those interviewed among the 3,450 people cleared for repatriation were willing to return to Rakhine state.
More than 1 million Rohingya are living in squalid conditions at refugee camps in Bangladesh, with about 740,000 fleeing Rakhine state when Myanmar’s security forces launched a counter-offensive against insurgents who attacked security outposts in August 2017. Myanmar military officials vehemently denied all claims that government security forces committed atrocities against Rohingya civilians.
Buddhist-majority Myanmar considers the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Myanmar has denied them access to jobs, education, as well as refused to grant them citizenship, although many have lived in the country for generations.
Haque said Rohingya refugees usually would contact their relatives left behind in Rakhine using mobile phones taking advantage of Bangladeshi cell towers along the border.
“We have instructed the mobile phone companies to weaken the telecom signal of the 150 mobile phone towers set up along the border with Myanmar,” he said. “If weakened, the Myanmar mobile phone towers would not reach Bangladeshi towers and the Rohingya would not be able to contact people in Rakhine.”
Mohamad Iqbal Hossain, an additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar district, told BenarNews that the cellphone ban could help curb the entry into Bangladesh of yaba, which contains a mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine. Officials allege the banned drug was being smuggled into the country from Myanmar.
“If mobile phone use is stopped, we can curb criminal activities in Ukhia and Teknaf,” he said, referring to the refugee camps in the two sub-districts of Cox’s Bazar.