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HRW: Stop clampdown on Rohingya refugees

  • Published at 06:12 pm September 7th, 2019
More than 700,000 Rohingyas entered Bangladesh fleeing the violence which erupted in Myanmar on August 25, 2017 Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

The government should stop trying to restrict the freedom of Rohingya refugees' movement and communication

The Bangladesh government should end restrictions on the freedom of movement and access to the internet and online communication of Rohingya refugees, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

Following a failed attempt to repatriate the refugees to Myanmar, a large rally by Rohingya refugees, and the murder of a local politician and four refugees, the government has intensified its restrictions, the watch said on Saturday.

"Bangladesh authorities have a major challenge in dealing in dealing with such a large number of refugees," Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, said.

"But they have made matters worse by imposing restrictions on refugee communications and freedom of movement," Adams said. “The authorities should take a level-headed approach instead of overreacting to tensions and protests by isolating Rohingya refugees in camps.”

According to the HRW, government's decision to shutdown mobile phone services since September 1 - to enhance security - for 13 hours daily, has put the 1.1 million Rohingya refugees at serious risk, by cutting off communications with security, health, and other necessary services.

On September 1, 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 5pm and 6am.

On September 4, Bangladesh’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence 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, HRW said.

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.”

HRW said the government actions appeared 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 very same day, a local leader of ruling Awami League's youth wing was allegedly killed by Rohingya refugees. Incidentally, four Rohingya refugees were killed soon after, in reported gunfights with police in Teknaf.

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.

Soon after, the government suspended three officials, including the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, Mohammad Abul Kalam, from Cox’s Bazar.

The government also banned certain non-governmental 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 claimed 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," the Rohingya activist said.

Brad Adams said: “Bangladesh authorities and the local community are understandably frustrated that there is no end in sight to the Rohingya refugee crisis."

“But they should direct their ire at the Myanmar army and government, which caused the problem, instead of taking it out on refugees.”