Network shutdowns in Rohingya camps: how they’re damaging the fragile information ecosystem of refugees from Myanmar

Guest post by Dr. Faheem Hussain, Clinical Assistant Professor, Arizona State University (email)

Since September 9, 2019, the Rohingyas who fled Myanmar to avoid persecution have been  suffering under restrictions on mobile phone internet access in Bangladesh. Per instructions of the Bangladesh’s telecom regulator, there are no 3G and 4G services in the refugee camps and the surroundings. There is no reliable internet service either, even as 2G services remain “available.” This service degradation is causing panic in the Rohingya refugee community, and it is also negatively affecting the humanitarian efforts on the ground. 

I work as a Clinical Assistant Professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society (SFIS) at Arizona State University, where we believe that the “future is for everyone” and explore ways to develop smart, resilient, and equitable living conditions for displaced populations around the world. It is in this context that I have been working with partners at BRAC and Young Power in Social Action (YPSA) and visiting the refugee camps to observe the conditions for the Rohingyas, an ethnic minority group of Myanmar that is currently among the most persecuted people in the world. What I discovered is that deliberate network restrictions are disrupting an already fragile information ecosystem and further hobbling Rohingyas’ capacity to get access to accurate information, express themselves freely, and otherwise exercise their fundamental human rights.    

Since August 2017, around 745,000 Rohingyas  have taken refuge in Bangladesh. For decades, the army-led administrations in Myanmar have consistently discriminated against  them, so they have been provided very limited access to education, health, communication, and other basic citizens’ rights. This systematic campaign of dehumanization eventually resulted in violent ethnic cleansing operations, forcing the Rohingyas out of Myanmar.

Dehumanized, Displaced, and officially cut off

Today, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh (officially identified as Forcefully Displaced Myanmar Nationals or FDMNs) are legally barred from purchasing any local SIM cards in their country of refuge, as they do not have any local identification documents. However, the majority of the Rohingyas have “illegal” access to mobile phone services, thanks to the Bangladeshi SIMs available to them via the black market. In many cases, Rohingyas pay premium to procure these SIM cards. Moreover, many Rohingyas also have Burmese SIM cards as backups, which work seamlessly in some parts of the border areas. 

Our research team observed that the most popular way the Rohingyas use mobile phones is to speak directly. The use of smartphone and real-time internet communications is relatively limited. The poor quality of high-speed data service in the hilly terrains (where the majority of the camps are located ) and the high cost of internet access significantly hinders smartphone use and internet access. Yet amid these challenges, the use of a mobile phone is still considered to be a critical lifeline, since it provides access to time-sensitive humanitarian services. In many cases, international development organizations are coordinating with their community volunteers within the refugee camps using audio-visual content recorded in the field. 

In Bangladesh, disconnection is deepening

However, some recent incidents in the refugee camp areas have raised anti-Rohingya sentiment among a sizable portion of the local population in Bangladesh. On August 25, 2019, the Rohingyas organized a massive political rally, which involved both face-to-face and digital communications. This level of mass mobilization came as a surprise to the host community’s administration. Furthermore, there has been an increase of complaints against the Rohingyas related to drug trafficking, human trafficking, and passport forgery. This has evidently increased the pressure on the government to restrict the free movement of Rohingyas outside their camps and to control their access and use of digital platforms for communications.   

Unfortunately, for the majority of the Rohingyas, this type of network shutdown is all too familiar. During their time in Myanmar, Rohingyas were facing much worse conditions. There, the network quality was poor, connections were pricey, and the Rohingyas were heavily fined and punished if they were found by law enforcement agencies to be in possession of any smart communication devices. 

Resilience and innovation in the face of increasing restrictions

Since their mass exodus from Myanmar in August 2017, the Rohingyas have responded to the restrictions they face in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Sporadic and very poor quality of mobile network services and lack of electricity is all too common in the camps. However, our research team observed a significant level of resilience as well as innovation among the Rohingyas despite these challenges, especially when it comes to access to information and communication.  

All around the refugee camp areas, we documented the proliferation of mobile recharging and repair shops. These shops, according to our observations over the last two years, have evolved from makeshift huts to major gatekeepers of information exchange, production, and distribution among Rohingya population, within and outside the formal camp areas in Bangladesh, and also globally. These shops are providing three major service options: 

  • Mobile repairing. This is a popular service among the Rohingyas. The mobile repair shopkeepers we have talked with can usually provide basic repair services for any mobile sets. In one of the shopkeeper’s words, “We fix the simple mobile phone set problems. We do not have the capital to store higher end hardware or screen protectors needed to repair many of the other smartphones.”  We found that the majority of the people that do the repairs have received some sort of training or earned a diploma in Myanmar. 
  • Mobile recharging. There is an acute power crisis in the camp areas, with no regular grid electricity to light up refugee households. Charging phones inside a refugee household is tough. In addition, many refugees are not using solar panels at their makeshift huts, as the widely available solar lamps are not strong enough to charge phones fully, especially the smart ones. Across the different camps, we found a very popular and a price-regulated mobile phone recharge provision. 
  • Memory card transfer. One of the methods adopted by the Rohingyas to disseminate information that shows ingenuity is through memory card transfer. A majority of the mobile repairing and recharging shops have laptops loaded with audio-visual content in multiple languages (Rohingya, Burmese, Bengali, Hindi, English, etc.). All of this content is sorted according to genre, i.e., movies, dramas, music videos, songs, religious sermons, and video clippings from Rohingya news sites. The Rohingyas usually buy 4 GB or 8 GB memory cards to load the content of their preference and pay the shopkeepers a specific fee, which we found similar across the different camps. 

Voice messenger services like WhatsApp and Imo are popular among the Rohingyas. Using these platforms, they are communicating within and outside their camps in Bangladesh and abroad. The majority of the Rohingyas have low or no literacy. These big groups of people use these applications to communicate by exchanging their recorded audio-visual messages in their own dialects. In recent months, Rohingyas are also using their WhatsApp accounts to receive and widely share micro-video content on education and healthcare. This content is developed by Rohingya expats, using the Rohingya dialects.  

Shutdowns exacerbate the problem with disinformation 

Unfortunately, it is also easy to use  alternative channels like WhatsApp to create or distribute disinformation and misinformation, or “fake news,” too. We observed that, over time, disinformation can contribute in creating further confusion. This may stoke violence between the host communities and the Rohingyas, and it could be a factor in exacerbating the issues surrounding drug and human trafficking. Overall, the latest network shutdown effort in the Rohingya camps is severely disrupting the already fragile information access and communication ecosystems. It is furthermore forcing the Rohingyas to be dependent of foreign SIM cards and alternative modes and channels of communication. This type of ban is creating a crisis in accessing the relevant information the refugees need, while encouraging the propagation of rumors, fear mongering, and mistrust.

To protect human rights and fight disinformation, lift the ban 

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is explicit on the right to freedom of expression for every person, and that includes for displaced populations. In the context of enforced displacement due to any humanitarian crisis, it becomes even more important for host countries and the international community to preserve and honor these rights. Giving the Rohingyas legal access to the regular mobile network and the internet will result in better communication and trust among the host and refugee communities. It would also discourage the existing manipulations surrounding the quasi-legal telecom access. Finally, it will minimize the proliferation of disinformation using unofficial media, enabling better equity of  access to information among the marginalized people of the displaced communities.