Digital gap deepens marginalization of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

October 29, 2023
9 mins read
Image: UNHCR/Roger Arnold

In an era marked by the global proliferation of mobile networks, which has considerably extended internet accessibility even to the world’s remotest regions, the issue of the digital divide persists as a pressing concern for certain refugee communities. Within the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in Bangladesh, the Rohingya continue to encounter formidable obstacles when it comes to accessing the internet – a fundamental right.

The Rohingya refugees continue to lack the necessary support to cultivate digital literacy skills that are crucial for obtaining information, maintaining connections with their families, fostering self-empowerment, and ensuring online safety. This enduring digital disparity stands as one of the most neglected facets of these refugees’ basic human rights, alongside access to food and shelter.

The article seeks to highlight the various tribulations around the refugees’ digital rights that I learned during three years of my time working with Rohingya refugees in Cox Bazar. The Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh are not only denied their citizenship from their home country, Myanmar, but also their right to connect to the world. Additionally, due to the limited livelihood opportunities, local government administrative restrictions on the internet, and very low levels of digital literacy, they have readily become targets of online scams and frauds.

Basic Access to the Internet

In 2017, more than one million Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, to escape from the brutal crackdown and clearance operation by the Myanmar military, an instance that the United Nations has called ‘a textbook example of a genocide’. Through more than five decades of oppression, the state of Myanmar still denies the Rohingyas as its citizens. These refugees have been living in crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar area near the Myanmar border for more than 5 years while still waiting for repatriation with citizenship rights in their home country. 

Image: Danish Refugee Council

While scholars may have moved beyond the issue of material access to the internet, the most basic level in the digital divide concerns the “haves” and “have-nots” of the digital devices and internet infrastructure, with the assumption that everyone has now an easier opportunity for connectivity, the case of the Rohingyas tells a different story.

Under Bangladeshi law, Rohingya are not permitted to register SIM cards in their names. In September 2019, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission directed mobile phone operators to stop selling SIMs to the Rohingyas and ordered to shut down the internet access in Cox’s Bazar camps where over one million Rohingyas live. Authorities described the decision to shut down the internet as a security measure for the camp, but it severely impacted both refugees and aid workers.

In 2020, over 50 human rights groups signed a petition to lift the internet restriction in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A Rohingya I talked to from the Kutupalong camp said that Bangladeshi authorities may have lifted the internet and mobile phone restrictions since 2020, but they only allowed 2G services, limited calls, and text messaging, and still restricted access to SIM card registration. Even for those who had SIM cards, the internet shutdown has rendered their SIM cards useless as they were banned after two or three months of disuse. These restrictions posed significant challenges to the refugees to access humanitarian aid including healthcare services and education.

Rohingyas are restricted from owning smartphones and laptops in camps. They leave their phone at home when they go outside the camps as they are worried that the Bangladeshi police might arrest them or seize their phones. The police often extort money from Rohingyas at the security checkpoints if they find anything suspicious about being related to the armed group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

“A few months ago, when I passed the checkpoint, the police checked my phone. As in the camp young people created a lot of chat groups to share information, I am in one of the groups that shared the camp situation. In that group, they found a photo of an ARSA leader and accused me of being an ARSA member. They asked me questions for two hours. The police asked me to pay 2,000 Taka if I wanted to be released. They threatened me that they could send me to prison for affiliation with an armed group. 

I also had to pay them the fine and make a video confession that I will not share that information with Aljazeera or other international news agencies. When they found out in my phone that I have contact information of a journalist from Al Jazeera, they asked me to tell them that the police did not extort money at the checkpoint, and I will not share any false information to international news outlets.”- An anonymous Rohingya interviewee

The lack of legal access to mobile SIM has forced the Rohingya refugees to adopt strategies to obtain internet access at the risk of rampant exploitations. Local mobile shops register the SIMs themselves and sell them to the refugees at more than double or sometimes triple the normal price. As Bangladeshi mobile users are required to verify their national identity documents to register their SIMs, the lack of citizenship documents in Rohingyas automatically excludes them from the services of the Bangladeshi service providers. The operators often shut down ‘the illegally obtained’ SIM cards after two or three months and the refugees have to keep getting another SIM. Sometimes the refugees needed to own and try two to three SIM cards from different carriers to be able to gain access. And yet, having the SIM does not guarantee an always-on connection, the internet works only in limited areas at a slow speed in some hilly areas around the camps.

A 25-years old Rohingya from Kutupalong refugee camp explained to me about his situation:

“Sometimes I have to travel too far away from my camp to access the internet to talk to my brothers who live in Saudi Arabia. The mobile operators banned our SIMs if they know we are using the ones registered under the Bangladeshi names. In some camp areas we have to use two sim cards: one could access the phone calls and the other only for the internet. Sometimes we use MPT (Myanmar sim card owned by the Myanmar military) to access the internet, but Bangladesh police checked mobile phones and arrested those who use Myanmar Sim in Cox’s Bazar.”

The lack of good mobile coverage in the camp areas has left many dwellers in the camps feeling isolated from the world. The SIM restrictions have a tremendous impact, particularly on Rohingya women, who live in a very closed and conservative society. The traditions and practices of the Rohingya communities do not allow them to go outside without permission or guidance, especially from their husbands. Women are expected to stay home. For those with phones, the internet allowed them to overcome these cultural barriers and connect with friends across the camps or friends and families living in foreign countries.

A humanitarian worker helps register Rohingya refugees in Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (July 2019). Image: UNHCR/Caroline Gluck

Internet and leisure in the camps

Internet connection for the refugees need not be understood from a reductionist perspective as the desire to communicate only. Leisure and mobile phones are another fundamental aspect of the motivation to access that Rohingya refugees deserve as much as users from the rest of the world. And yet, the restricted and distraught situations in the camps as well as the lack of opportunity to develop better digital skills have provided less than desirable experiences for Rohingyas refugees, particularly women.

Many Rohingya refugees access information online from the Facebook and Rohingya language YouTube channels. TikTok has also recently become popular among Rohingya youths. Many young people use TikTok to create videos with Rohingya songs, while sometimes Rohingya armed groups and their supporters create short videos on TikTok to persuade the Rohingya community to support them. Despite the entertainment possibilities of mobile phones, Rohingya users are vulnerable to online exploitations such as scams, and more particularly, women are at risk of dangerous sexual harassment. 

Sexual Exploitations Online

Online sexual exploitation is reportedly common to women living in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps. Many young Rohingya women covet to use social media on their mobile phones but only a very few could do so. To ensure their safety, they usually create social media profiles using different identities and photos to avoid harm and hide their accounts from family members and friends. Rohingya women join social media groups on IMO, Facebook, and WhatsApp using made-up names and photos. Sometimes, men also impersonate women online. An anonymous Rohingya I interviewed said:

“TikTok has become popular among us (men). Users who sign up for TikTok accounts are pretending to be women using women’s names and photos rather than their real identity. Later when they got thousands of followers, they changed back to their real name and photos.” 

Yet, the Rohingya refugees said cyberbullying has been a significant hurdle for women users in the digital spaces, particularly because of sexual exploitation and abuse. Some Rohingya elders believe that Facebook functions primarily as a dating app, which leads some parents to restrict young daughters from using social media as they think that it is against Islamic principles.

According to my interviewees, online dating is prevalent, and some Rohingya women have been exploited, blackmailed, or threatened by Rohingya men whom they met online. Men often threaten to expose private chats or photos of women who are not wearing burqa or hijab if they decide to break up or not consent to sex texting with the men whom they met online. These situations create a blanket concern that compels Rohingya families to limit women in the camp from accessing mobile phones. And yet Rohingya women continue to see such exploitations and sexual harassment on social media as they do not know how to and where to gain external support or report those abuses to the platforms.

“Rohingya men used their private videos and chat screenshots to humiliate women after they broke up and sometimes to threaten the women not to break up with them. It disproportionately impacts women, as men do not want to marry the women who have been exposed online in such ways, leaving women powerless to counter the exploitations.” – An anonymous Rohingya interviewee

On the other hand, some women approach social media as an escape route to leaving the camps. For the lack of job opportunities, education, and safety, women are willing to leave the camps at any cost. There are cases in the camps where some women have met men from Malaysia and believed that those men could provide them with financial sponsorship to help them leave the camp and the country. Particularly young girls find potential suitors on social media to get married to those working in Malaysia.

“Inside the camps, due to the gender gap between men and women, women are required to pay dowry to men for marriage. Most families are unable to afford to pay dowry, so many women could not marry. They thought that they could meet men on social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp and that the men they were meeting there could pay money to human traffickers to travel to Malaysia.” – An anonymous Rohingya interviewee

Victims of Online Scam

Due to restrictive situations and rare income opportunities in the camps, Rohingyas often become victims of online scams. In 2022, Bangladesh authorities demolished thousands of shops in the camps owned by the refugees where they were receiving small income to provide for their families. In addition, in June 2023, WFP (World Food Programme) cut its monthly food assistance for Rohingya refugees from $10 per person to $8. Due to that, Rohingya found themselves in extremely challenging conditions to survive and easily become victims of online scammers. Scammers often offer incentives and ask the refugees to transfer money from their BKash, Bangladeshi digital wallet, account to invest in a company or business. Rohingya refugees explained that in the first month, the scammers transferred money to them and asked them to reinvest in other companies. Scammers lured Rohingya to invest 10,000 to 50,000 Taka to get 10,000 per month profits. 

Someone called one of my first cousins and asked him to invest in a new pharmacy company. In the first month, they transferred money to him around 10,000 Taka and asked him to invest that money into the next new company. After he transferred that money, the online scammers disappeared, and he was unable to contact them anymore.”- An anonymous Rohingya interviewee

“My neighbor from my village invested money with an online scam and later she lost all the money. They just disappeared and blocked her phone number. Later her husband divorced her as she used money for investment without discussing it with her husband.” – An anonymous Rohingya interviewee

A Rohingya volunteer teacher shared that in the last two months around 40 households have faced online scams who said that their names were on the list of the US resettlement program and asked them to transfer travel expenses. A few months later those scammer accounts blocked them and disappeared. Although Rohingya refugees reported to Bangladeshi police there has been no action against those online scammers.

“Many who met scams online received fake documents about the US resettlement and were asked to share necessary documents. So, the Rohingyas thought that they were on the list of resettlement programs. Around 40 households became victims of this scam and lost their money. Some families sold their gold and shelters to pay for the money as they thought they could go to the US.”- A Rohingya volunteer teacher 

In a separate incident, some human traffickers and smugglers targeted young Rohingyas, aged between 14 and 18, promising them a free journey to Malaysia with the condition that they would pay a fee once they secured jobs in Malaysia. Subsequently, the traffickers transported the young Rohingyas to Thamee Hla village in Rathedaung Township, located within the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Here, they subjected the youths to physical abuse and recorded the ordeal, which they then used to intimidate the victims’ parents, demanding a ransom payment. They conveyed a grim threat, asserting that if the parents failed to transfer the money, they would endanger the lives of their children.

Rohingya Population by Location in Bangladesh. Image: UNHCR

Kathy Win

Kathy Win is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia, Law School. She holds an MSc. in Violence, Conflict and Development Studies from SOAS University of London and MRes Social Science Research Methods from University of East Anglia.

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