In a tea room just outside Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps, a group of young activists fiddle with their phones, which have suddenly started pinging in chorus now they are finally reconnected to the internet.
To circumvent a government internet blackout around the camps in Cox’s Bazar, they have to break a ban on travelling to nearby Bangladeshi towns, from where they can communicate and coordinate messages for the international community.
With simple smartphones the activists have been able to build some kind of Rohingya voice, speaking to the world through WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. But their efforts have often been frustrated, mostly for a more fundamental reason than the technological barrier in place since August: they believe the aid community sent to help them is not listening.
“The Rohingya community are not weak, but the situation makes us weak,” says Mohammad Arfaat, an activist who was part of a Rohingya team that made a short film about how violence had forced them from Myanmar in 2017.
He has been calling for more help for Rohingya to launch their own initiatives, for everything from education to arts, but complains there has been no support. “The Rohingya youth are very talented … but nobody sits, nobody talks with them, so their voices have stopped,” says Arfaat.
These concerns have risen since August, when Bangladesh responded to a failed attempt to repatriate the Rohingya – for which not a single refugee volunteered – by imposing tighter restrictions on their movement and communication.