Bangladesh asked the telecom operators to shut down mobile phone services in Rohingya camps, citing a security threat and illegal phone use in the territory, reports Al Jazeera. It has also ordered the telecom companies to stop selling SIM cards. A spokesperson for Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) told AFP that telecom operators have seven days to submit reports to the government on the actions they took to shut down networks in the camps. The spokesperson added that a recent “survey” in the camps revealed that cellphones are being used illegally and people in the camps pose a threat to the country.

According to the report, a police spokesperson, Ikbal Hossain, hailed this decision. He said that the refugees have been “abusing” mobile phone access to conduct criminal activities such as trafficking of methamphetamine pills worth hundreds of millions of dollars from Myanmar. He further stated that this communications blackout will have a positive impact and will help reduce criminal activities in the country.

Back in August 2017, about 700,000 Rohingya had fled into Bangladesh from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, following a military crackdown in response to the militant attack. They joined about 200,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled there earlier. The Bangladesh government had banned mobile phones in Rohingya camps in 2017, but this was never wholly enforced; mobile phones and SIM cards remained easily available.

Back in 2018, the Bangladesh government had suspended high-speed internet services in the country one day before national elections were held on December 30. At the time, the BTRC had said the restriction was imposed to “prevent rumours and propaganda surrounding the vote”.

This crackdown comes just days after Rohingyas rallied on the two-year anniversary of their exodus. Over the last few months, more than 40 Rohingya refugees have been killed amid allegations that some refugees are involved in smuggling illegal drugs from Myanmar.

Affect of the shutdown

According to a Rohingya leader, the order has caused major discrepancies in the communication pattern of Rohingya refugees. He said it would disrupt communications between different camps scattered across the border district of Cox’s Bazar. Refugees relied on the technology and radio broadcast to disseminate information and connect with family, he said. As per NDTV, a UN official has said that this move would further isolate and victimise the already persecuted people. He further stated that Bangladesh’s move to limit communications within the Rohingya camps will serve to push them towards negative coping habits, be it crime, violence or extremism.

Internet shutdown in Rakhine in Myanmar

Rohingyas camps in Myanmar are largely situated in Rakhine state, and a communications blackout in Bangladesh will completely isolate them from their families, reported Reuters. Also, the Myanmar government had shut down internet services in two western states of Rakhine and Chin in June 2019. Only last week, it partially restored internet connectivity.