12,000 SIMs seized in Rohingya camps in Bangladesh

Muktadir Rashid | Published: 00:26, Dec 07,2019 | Updated: 17:05, Dec 07,2019


Over 12,000 unregistered mobile phone SIM cards were seized in a fresh crackdown in Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar since September following change of the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner.

Officials at commissioner’s office in Cox’s Bazar said they were not seizing handsets rather taking away the SIM cards of both Myanmar and Bangladeshi operators used by the Rohingyas.

‘We are conducting drive as they are not allowed to use any SIM cards. We are controlling as much we can...’ said refugee relief and repatriation commissioner Md Mahbub Alam Talukderm in the past week.

The steps were taken alongside the weakening mobile phone networks inside the camps following the August 25 rally in Kutupalang camp where over one lakh Rohingya gathered seeking justice to atrocities of Myanmar military in Rakhine state two years ago.

An official of the commissioner’s office posted in Ukhia informed New Age on Friday their office seized over 12,000 SIM cards since September and would continue the drive.

‘Most of those undocumented SIMs belong to Robi but other operators including MPT of Myanmar were also available,’ the official said.

In October, Rohingya leaders and youths said they heard public announcement inside the camps which instructed them not to use any Bangladeshi SIMs. It was also announced that if anyone found using the SIM cards will be fined Tk 50,000 or six-month imprisonment, they said. 

A photo shared from Ukhia showed an assistant camp-in-charge was seen sitting at his office with hundreds SIMs seized during the drive.  

A Rohingya youth said over phone, ‘Now we are using it secretly…’

On September 17, Teknaf police arrested a Rohingya man and two Myanmar citizens with 250 SIM cards in the Teknaf land port area.

Media report from Cox’s Bazar on October 17, 2019 said a significant number of Rohingyas living in the camps in Ukhiya and Teknaf were using Myanmar state telecom’s SIM cards for their daily telecommunication needs.

According to the report, Myanmar’s MTP cellular network gained much popularity in many areas of near Rohingya camps after Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission curtailed 3G and 4G services inside the refugee camps and nearby areas of Ukhiya and Teknaf on security grounds. Before the total ban, there was a night-time ban on 3G and 4G services in Ukhiya and Teknaf from 5:00pm to 6:00am.

It said traders bought MPT SIMs from Myanmar for Tk30-40 each and sold those for Tk 70-100 inside the camps, which is cheaper than Bangladeshi SIMs.

Apart from the drives of the refugee commissioner’s office, Cox’s Bazar police also conducted anti-mobile phone drives in Rohingya camps. ‘We have also seized a significant amount of illegal SIM cards,’ said Masud Hossain, Cox’s Bazar superintendent of police.

An official at Cox’s Bazar police seeking anonymity said police could identify or monitor many crime suspects when they used mobile phones.

A high ranking official of Border Guard Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazar also requesting anonymity said suspending communication might cause trouble in many cases.

The decision of weakening mobile network triggered local and international criticism in September. Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement then said, ‘Restricting communications in the refugee camps will hinder desperately needed services, worsening already dire living conditions and putting lives at risk’.

Bangladesh government withdrew then refugee relief and repatriation commissioner Mohammad Abul Kalam and made him an officer on special duty at the public administration ministry and appointed Md Mahbub Alam Talukder.

Abul Kalam’s transfer came a week after Rohingyas had held a mass gathering inside Kutupalang camp on August 25, marking the anniversary of the beginning of the displaced Myanmar nationals’ influx in Bangladesh feeling ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State.

Want stories like this in your inbox?

Sign up to exclusive daily email