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Rohingya refugees gather behind a barbed-wire fence in the “no-man’s land” border zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh, April 25, 2018. © 2018 Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

(New York) – The Bangladesh government’s plans for barbed wire and guard towers around Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar violate refugees’ rights to freedom of movement, Human Rights Watch said today. Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan announced the plan on September 26, 2019, saying it was specifically ordered by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

While the authorities have a duty to protect camp residents, security measures should not infringe upon basic rights and humanitarian needs. The proposed measures do not meet the standards of necessity and proportionality for restricting free movement under international human rights law.

“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina opened Bangladesh’s borders to Rohingya refugees fleeing mass atrocities in Myanmar, but she now seems intent on turning the camps into essentially open air prisons,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “By cutting the refugees off from the outside world, the Bangladesh government risks squandering the global goodwill it had earned.”

On September 4, the Bangladesh Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense recommended building a security fence around the camps “so that no one can come out of the camps and no one can enter inside the camps.” Instead of protecting the security of refugees, denying them all freedom of movement infringes on a fundamental right. It also places them at serious risk should they need to evacuate in an emergency or obtain emergency medical and other humanitarian services.

The government announcement comes just a few weeks after the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission directed all telecommunication operators to shut down 3G and 4G services in the camps. Camp residents report that high-speed service has remained shut down since September 10. Humanitarian aid workers reported that the shutdown has seriously hampered their ability to effectively assist the nearly one million refugees.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has recognized that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party, applies “without discrimination between citizens and aliens,” including refugees. The committee noted, “Aliens have the full right to liberty and security of the person.... They have the right to liberty of movement.”

Bangladesh security forces have contributed to increasing tension and danger in the camps. The Bangladesh government has increased the military presence in the camps, but refugees said these forces were harassing them instead of protecting them. A police official reported that since the murder of a local politician, Omar Faruk, on August 22, law enforcement officers have killed at least 13 Rohingya refugees in “crossfire.” He said that 11 of them were allegedly involved in Faruk’s murder. “Crossfire” killings are frequently extrajudicial killings by law enforcement. On September 16, UN human rights experts called for “an independent, impartial and effective investigation into all deaths that have occurred with regards to this case.” No one has been arrested for these killings.

“Denying refugees all movement and cutting off their communication is not an appropriate response to security concerns,” Adams said. “The Bangladesh government should be protecting refugees who have fled mass atrocities, not subjecting them to further abuse.”

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