Bangladesh imposes mobile phone ban on refugees

A Rohingya man talks on his mobile phone as he arrives in Tuangiri, Teknaf, Bangladesh, on Sept 12, 2017.
A Rohingya man talks on his mobile phone as he arrives in Tuangiri, Teknaf, Bangladesh, on Sept 12, 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

DHAKA • Bangladesh has banned telecoms companies from selling mobile phone connections to Rohingya refugees, citing security concerns for the latest restrictions.

Bangladesh's four mobile phone providers will be fined if they offer phone plans to the 430,000 newly arrived refugees from Myanmar while the ban is in force.

"For the time being, they (the Rohingya) can't buy any SIM cards," senior telecoms ministry officer Enayet Hossain said yesterday.

The decision on Saturday to impose a communication blackout on the stateless Muslim minority was justified for security reasons, said junior telecoms minister Tarana Halim.

Bangladesh already prohibits the sale of SIM cards to its own citizens who cannot provide an official identity card, in a bid to frustrate the organisational capacity of home-grown militants.

"We took the step (of welcoming the Rohingya) on humanitarian grounds but, at the same time, our own security should not be compromised," Ms Halim said, without elaborating on what specific risk the Rohingya posed.

The telecoms authority said the ban could be lifted once biometric identity cards are issued to the new arrivals, a process the army says could take six months.

It is just the latest restriction imposed on the Rohingya, who have fled in huge numbers from violence in neighbouring Myanmar's Rakhine state into squalid camps in Bangladesh's southernmost Cox's Bazar district in the past four weeks.

The newly arrived refugees have been herded by the military into a handful of overstretched camps near the border, where tens of thousands live in the open without shelter. Many have been evicted from squatting in forest and farmlands by police and soldiers, who have been ordered to keep the Rohingya from seeking shelter in major cities and nearby towns.

Roadblocks have been erected along major routes from the camp zones, where a dire shortage of food, water, shelter and toilets is creating what aid groups describe as a humanitarian crisis. Some 5,100 have already been stopped at these checkpoints and returned to designated camps, police said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'Bangladesh imposes mobile phone ban on refugees'. Subscribe