Limits on Internet and cellphone service imposed this month, along with curbs on aid agencies, offer some of the clearest signs that Bangladesh is growing tired of the camps in its impoverished southeast and is looking for ways to nudge the Rohingya back to Myanmar without resorting to force. The mostly Muslim refugees have resisted two attempts to repatriate a handful of them to Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority nation that denies them many rights and whose army violently ejected them in 2017.
“The government’s actions are an easy solution to a bigger problem,” said Imtiaz Ahmed, director of the Center for Genocide Studies at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh, in relation to the communication restrictions and challenges of security and repatriation.
On Monday, Bangladesh’s telecom regulator ordered network operators to halt all cellphone service in an area covering the Rohingya camps near Cox’s Bazar, near the Myanmar border. The move followed a limited shutdown on cellphone service, between 5 p.m. and 5 a.m., imposed on Sept. 1.
The regulator’s deputy director, Nahidul Hasan, cited state security and law and order as justification for the clampdown. Bangladesh had previously banned sales of SIM cards in the camps, but they were widely available and locals often sold them to refugees. The government says official identification, which Rohingya lack, is needed to buy a SIM card.
On a recent day here at the tail end of monsoon season, refugees congregating inside their homes and under storefront awnings voiced fears about the growing pressure.
“Don’t take your phone with you when you go outside,” Nasima Akhter, a refugee living in Kutupalong, the largest camp for displaced people, told her neighbor, Hamida Khatun. “The police are taking away our phones.”
“If I don’t have a phone, how can I reach out to anyone in case of an emergency?” Khatun asked. “How will you talk to us if you need to know what’s going on in the camps?”
Aid groups say Bangladesh has overreacted to the tensions and warn that the restrictions jeopardize safety in refugee camps.
“There is no proper communication system between the 34 camps. How can you restrict Internet and confiscate mobile phones?” said Abu Murshed Chowdhury, co-chairman of Cox’s Bazar CSO-NGO forum, a network of nonprofit and human rights groups.
Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said in a statement that Bangladesh faced a challenge in dealing with the refugee crisis but had “made matters worse by imposing restrictions on refugee communications and freedom of movement.”
Activists say Bangladesh officials are penalizing the Rohingya after some refugees held a rally Aug. 25 to commemorate the two-year anniversary of their expulsion and to call on Myanmar to grant them a proper path to repatriation through citizenship. Since 1982, Rohingya have been unable to legally marry, gain access to education and many jobs, or move freely within Myanmar, also known as Burma.
“The protest was not meant to cause Bangladesh harm in any way,” Khatun said. “We are grateful to this country for giving us space, but we want to know about our future.”
Camp officials faced swift backlash from local politicians and government officials for permitting the demonstration. The head of the Office of Refugee Relief and Repatriation and the official in charge of the camp where the rally occurred were transferred out of their roles.
Bangladesh also banned two aid groups, including the U.S.-based Adventist Development and Relief Agency, from operating in the camps. Mohammad Ashraful Afsar, an official in Cox’s Bazar district, told the Dhaka Tribune that the organization had encouraged Rohingya to resist attempts to repatriate them and that it had financed the protest, including by giving them clothes.
The U.S. organization denies this. “For visibility, donors gave T-shirts to refugees in some of the camps. It wasn’t meant for the rally, it was meant for ongoing activities,” said Iqbal Hassan, a field monitoring officer. “We have had no role in repatriation efforts or even a role in counseling Rohingya for or against repatriation.”
Hassan said his organization employed almost 5,000 Rohingya laborers who helped to build pathways and bridges and repair monsoon damage. “They will lose their livelihood now,” he said.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina expressed concerns about the role of nongovernmental organizations, suggesting they were fomenting opposition to efforts to return refugees to Myanmar. “Actually, these agencies never want them to go back,” Hasina said at a news conference in June. She also questioned Myanmar’s commitment to providing a safe space that would allow the Rohingya to go home. Myanmar says it is doing all it can but has not agreed to grant Rohingya full citizenship rights.
With frustration building, and a solution as elusive as ever, the situation in the camps is increasingly tense. Refugees fear they will remain in limbo. “Will we only survive this life by taking rice and lentils from aid groups?” asked Nurul Alam, a shopkeeper who fled Myanmar in 2017.