Rohingya refugees gather in an open field at Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh to commemorate the two-year anniversary of the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Rakhine State on August 25, 2019. 

© 2019 K M Asad/LightRocket via Getty Images
(New York) – The Bangladesh government should end restrictions on Rohingya refugees’ freedom of movement and access to the internet and online communications, Human Rights Watch said today. Government restrictions have intensified following a failed attempt to repatriate refugees to Myanmar, a large rally by Rohingya refugees, and the killings of a local politician and four refugees.

“Bangladesh authorities have a major challenge in dealing with such a large number of refugees, but they have made matters worse by imposing restrictions on refugee communications and freedom of movement,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The authorities should take a level-headed approach instead of overreacting to tensions and protests by isolating Rohingya refugees in camps.”

On September 1, 2019, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) ordered telecommunication operators to shut down mobile phone services in the camps within seven days. The next day, the BTRC ordered mobile network operators to shut down 3G and 4G services in the camps each day between 5 p.m. and 6 a.m. While the authorities say the shutdown is to enhance security, they have not explained how. The 13-hour daily shutdown puts approximately one million refugees at serious risk by cutting off communications with security, health, and other necessary services.

On September 4, Bangladesh’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense recommended building a security fence around the camps. A standing committee member, Muhammad Faruk Khan, said: “We have been observing the Rohingyas are freely moving around the camps and outside. Therefore, to ensure security we recommended taking measures so that no one can come out of the camps and no one can enter inside the camps.”

While the authorities have a duty to protect camp residents, security measures should not infringe upon their right to freedom of movement outside the camps. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has recognized that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Bangladesh is a party, applies “without discrimination between citizens and aliens,” including refugees. The committee noted that, “Aliens have the full right to liberty and security of the person.... They have the right to liberty of movement.”

The government actions appear to be in response to recent incidents involving the Rohingya refugees. A highly publicized attempt by the Bangladesh government to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar on August 22 failed because the refugees believe that the current conditions in Myanmar make their return unsafe. That day, alleged Rohingya refugees killed Omar Faruk, 30, a local leader of the ruling Awami League’s youth wing in Teknaf. Law enforcement officers then killed four Rohingya refugees who they said were involved in the murder. Police claim the Rohingya were killed in “crossfire,” a phrase often used by security forces in Bangladesh in cases of extrajudicial execution.

The authorities and some local leaders in Cox’s Bazar also expressed alarm after a massive demonstration in Kutupalong camp on August 25, the two-year anniversary of the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Rakhine State that caused a mass exodus of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. The government suspended three officials, including the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, Mohammad Abul Kalam, from Cox’s Bazar for allowing the refugees to organize such a large gathering. The government also banned certain nongovernmental aid organizations from working in the camps, including the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) and an Islamic aid organization, Al Markazul Islami, for allegedly supporting the August 25 rally, including by providing refugees with T-shirts for the event. Two foreign aid workers were given notice to leave the country.

The Bangladesh government has increased the military presence in the camps to protect law and order. But refugees said the authorities were harassing them instead, particularly the organizers of the August 25 rally. One Rohingya activist told Human Rights Watch that previously, refugees would be eager to help police provide security in the camps. “But now the protectors are turning cruel just because we gathered on August 25,” he said. “Some of our people are being interrogated by [intelligence] agencies continuously regarding that gathering. But we gathered there with intention to call the Myanmar government to sit with us, not to make the Bangladesh government anxious.”

“Bangladesh authorities and the local community are understandably frustrated that there is no end in sight to the Rohingya refugee crisis,” Adams said. “But they should direct their ire at the Myanmar army and government, which caused the problem, instead of taking it out on refugees.”