Mohammed Rafique’s dying mother wanted to hear from her son in Myanmar one last time. But Rafique couldn’t grant her this last wish.
He climbed hilltops and hiked across Bangladesh’s vast refugee camps, trying to catch a phone signal to reach his brother – with no success.
Since September, Bangladesh’s government has banned the sale of mobile phone SIM cards to refugees, and ordered telecom companies to impose severe restrictions on internet and phone connections.
The mobile internet service in the camp has been squeezed to nearly zero – except for an infrequent, low-speed connection that cuts in and out when available at all. Even phone lines have grown patchy.
The restrictions have made it difficult for aid staff and government officials working in the camps to coordinate. But hardest hit are the refugees, who say the phone ban is part of a government crackdown that has severed their only link to the outside world.
For Rohingya like Rafique, staying in touch with loved ones – both within the camps as well as abroad – has become nearly impossible.
“Sometimes, you can barely say ‘salaam alaikum’ before the call drops again,” he said, a desperate grimace lining his face.
It’s especially hard to reach family still in Rakhine, where Myanmar’s government has also imposed an internet blackout across nearly half the state – including Rafique’s former home in Buthidaung, a northern township.
“I don’t know how my brother is, and he doesn’t know how I am.”
He and his brother haven’t spoken in weeks. He relied on a friend in the nearby town of Cox’s Bazar – officially off limits to refugees – to relay news of their mother’s death in January.