The Bangladeshi government cracks down on Rohingya freedom of expression and movement

View of the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo:UK Department for International Development

Tensions in Rohingya refugee camps are rising following failed repatriation efforts. The Bangladeshi government’s knee-jerk responses only threaten to exacerbate the situation.

By Oliver Ward

The Bangladeshi government has taken steps to restrict Rohingya refugees’ freedom of movement and communication. The hosts have adopted an increasingly repressive attitude towards the Rohingya Muslims living in refugee camps in Bangladesh in recent weeks.

The Burmese government embarked on a campaign of genocide and murder in August 2017, prompting some 740,000 Rohingya to flee across the border in search of safety. There are now around 940,000 living in makeshift refugee camps along Bangladesh’s Southeast border.

The Bangladeshi government is following a playbook of repression

On September 3, the Bangladeshi government cut access to 3G and 4G cellular services in the border towns of Teknaf and Ukhia. The two towns are home to 36 refugee camps. While 2G services remain, the move all but signals the complete restriction of internet access for the Rohingya refugees.

Abu Saeed Khan, a senior policy fellow at the LIRNEasia think tank said the shutdown, “effectively means the shutdown of the internet. With 2G network, it will be almost impossible to access.”

Mobile phone operators were given seven days to provide reports to the government outlining the steps they have taken to limit connectivity in the camps.

Following the announcement, the government ordered mobile operators to halt the sale of SIM cards to Rohingya. However, a SIM card ban would be almost impossible to enforce. There is already a thriving black market for SIM cards and mobile phone handsets in the camps.

While internet access is not universally considered a human right, in an interconnected world, it becomes a vessel for freedom of expression and a necessary tool for refugees to maintain contact with family, secure health services and request humanitarian assistance.

On September 4, Bangladesh’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense recommended the construction of a perimeter fence around the refugee camps. The committee maintained the proposal was to enhance camp security, but if implemented, it would severely limit Rohingya refugees’ freedom of movement.

There has been an increase in tension

Tensions in the camps have been high in recent weeks. Clashes between the Rohingya and their hosts have occasionally boiled over into violence. In late August, the Bangladeshi authorities accused Rohingya refugees of killing Omar Faruk, a local leader of the Awami League in Teknaf.

The police killed four Rohingya they believe to be responsible for the attack in what amount to extrajudicial killings. The police maintain the refugees were killed in “crossfire”. More than 40 refugees have been killed by Bangladeshi security forces in recent months. Most stood accused of transporting illegal drugs from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

Violence in the camps has disrupted aid organisations’ operations, putting more than 100,000 refugees at risk of losing humanitarian assistance.

The moves are a likely response to failed repatriation efforts and increased Rohingya mobilisation

The Bangladeshi government pushed for the government in Myanmar to begin the repatriation of Rohingya refugees. On August 22, following the Burmese government’s approval of the return of 3,450 Rohingya, buses arrived at the camps to transport the refugees back to Myanmar. However, no Rohingya refugees willingly boarded the buses.

Refugees expressed concerns over their safety in Myanmar. There has been no legal effort to hold army officials to account for the violence and genocide in Rakhine State. There also remains no path to citizenship for repatriated refugees, preventing them from securing civil rights.

Many also have nowhere to go. Their villages were burnt to the ground. The BBC also revealed this week that Myanmar’s government has been constructing government buildings on the sites of former Rohingya villages.

Those that have returned to Myanmar, including 20 refugees who left Kutupalong camp in early August, report being held in transit camps in Rakhine State with no information on whether they would be permitted to return to their villages.

Rohingya children from Burma in the Kutupalong refugee camp, near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Photo: UK Department for International Development

In addition to refusing to engage with the repatriation process, Rohingya Muslims turned out to mark two-years since the Myanmar military began its brutal crackdown and the Rohingya’s exodus. 200,000 Rohingya held a peaceful gathering in Cox’s Bazaar.

The Bangladeshi government suspended three officials for allowing such a large demonstration and banned several aid organisations from operating in the camps for allegedly supporting the protests.

The demonstration prompted a shift in the treatment of Rohingya refugees in the camps. One Rohingya activist described how “protectors are turning cruel just because we gathered.” “Some of our people are being interrogated by agencies continuously regarding that gathering,” he said, “but we gathered there with the intention to call the Myanmar government to sit with us, not make the Bangladesh government anxious.”

The anxiety stems from there being no end in sight

The lack of progress on repatriation has Bangladeshi government officials worried. Their efforts have centred on pushing the Burmese government to facilitate the Rohingya’s return, but without a roadmap for peace, accountability and citizenship, meaningful progress will be unobtainable.

However, the Bangladeshi government should be cautious about taking their ire out on Rohingya refugees. Their attempts to limit internet access and freedom of movement could be illegal under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees refugees the same rights to liberty as citizens, to which Bangladesh is a signatory.   

Instead of channelling its efforts into repression and repatriation, Bangladesh would be better placed to drum up international support to pressure Myanmar to implement the recommendations of the UN Advisory Commission, including granting the Rohingya fundamental rights and freedoms, political representation, accountability for human rights violations and the restoration of citizenship rights.

The path to the swiftest solution of the refugee crisis lies in securing these guarantees from the government in Myanmar. Rather than limiting the avenues of communication in refugee camps, Bangladesh should be opening its own communication channels with international players to put Rohingya rights at the forefront of regional discussions.