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A Rohingya refugee stands on a makeshift house at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox's Bazar on September 13, 2019.  © 2019 Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

(New York) – New telecommunications and internet restrictions on Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh will disrupt critical humanitarian and emergency services, Human Rights Watch said today. The network shutdown imposed on camp locations in Teknaf and Ukhiya in Cox’s Bazar severely limits communications and access to information for nearly one million refugees.

On September 9, 2019, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission directed all telecommunication operators to shut down 3G and 4G services in the camps, media reports said. Camp residents report that high-speed service has been shut down since September 10. A week earlier, the government had ordered a shutdown of all 3G and 4G services between 5 p.m. and 6 a.m. While 2G services appear to remain available, this may only allow limited calls and text messaging. The Bangladesh government should immediately lift the restrictions.

“The Bangladesh government has a responsibility to ensure safety and security in the Rohingya camps, but shutting down internet access isn’t the way to do it,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Restricting communications in the refugee camps will hinder desperately needed services, worsening already dire living conditions and putting lives at risk.”

Humanitarian aid workers have reported that the shutdown has hampered their ability to provide assistance, including responding to emergencies. One aid worker said they can no longer receive photos and other data from refugees to deliver emergency infrastructure repairs during the monsoons. Refugees “who are affected by the heavy rainfall have to wait until we can reach them,” he said. The weekend before the restrictions, monsoon rains displaced about 15,000 people in the refugee camps.

The shutdown follows several security-related incidents in August. A repatriation attempt by the Bangladesh and Myanmar governments failed because of refugees’ fears of return under current conditions. Residents held a massive demonstration on August 25 in Kutupalong camp, commemorating the second anniversary of the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Rakhine State. And, after alleged Rohingya refugees killed a local politician, law enforcement officers killed four Rohingya refugees who they claimed were involved in the murder.

Bangladesh authorities say that refugees have obtained SIM cards illegally since they cannot be sold to anyone without proper verification of identity documents. The Telecommunication Regulatory Commission has directed mobile phone carrier companies to stop selling SIM cards to Rohingya and to verify the registration details of all active connections in camp areas. Bangladesh officials told Human Rights Watch that some refugees were using internet-based communications for criminal activities.

Under international human rights law, Bangladesh has an obligation to ensure that restrictions on the right to communicate are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. The United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression has found that while “shutdowns are frequently associated with total network outages, they may also arise when access to mobile communications, websites or social media and messaging applications is blocked, throttled or rendered ‘effectively unusable.’”

Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information, or to harm people’s ability to freely assemble and express political views. International law guarantees everyone, including non-nationals, the right to freedom of expression.

The refugees’ ability to communicate with relatives and friends outside the camp – particularly those still in Myanmar – is important not only for their wellbeing but as a direct source of information about conditions in Rakhine State. This information is critical for determining whether it is safe to return home, particularly since Myanmar has demonstrated that its information is not reliable, and the UN refugee agency has limited access to the places the Rohingya would potentially return to.

In July 2016, the UN Human Rights Council condemned measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law, and said that all countries should refrain from and cease such measures.

“Bangladesh has received global praise for generously hosting Rohingya refugees who fled atrocities in Myanmar,” Adams said. “But the government risks global criticism if it squanders that goodwill by denying refugees access to information and other basic rights.”

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