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Dhaka Tribune

How mobile banking facilitates crimes in Rohingya camps

  • Dhaka Tribune delves into how mobile banking is being exploited
  • Law enforcement officers profess ignorance
Update : 12 Mar 2024, 10:12 AM

Several international human trafficking and drug gangs have been formed under the leadership of a section of Rohingyas within the confines of refugee camps in Cox's Bazar. These networks, often with the collaboration of local Bangladeshis, operate with impunity, exploiting vulnerable individuals within and around the camps.

Members of the trafficking rings entice unsuspecting local youth with the allure of passage to Malaysia by sea, bypassing the need for passports or visas. 

Simultaneously, other criminal factions exert control over the flow of drugs within the Rohingya community.

Much of the financial infrastructure sustaining these gangs relies heavily on mobile banking. However, law enforcement officers profess ignorance regarding the extent of the issue, highlighting a gap in oversight.

Accessing mobile financial services requires a registered SIM card. In theory, no displaced Myanmar citizen should be able to get his/her SIM card registered as they do not have Bangladeshi NID cards. But in reality, many Rohingyas are using popular mobile financial services in the camps. They also use Myanmar's KBZ Bank app.

Dhaka Tribune recently delved into the matter of how they are exploiting mobile banking.

Large transactions

Shafi Alam operates as a mobile banking agent in the Mochnipara area under Hnila union in Teknaf upazila. Over the past few months, transactions amounting to at least Tk50 lakh have flowed through his agent’s banking number. Shafi is said to be quite influential among agents in the area. However, Dhaka Tribune found that he is a Rohingya from Myanmar, not Bangladeshi.

“Forced from his homeland, Myanmar, he (Shafi) took refuge with his wife in Teknaf. He is now the father of two children. His entire family is registered as refugees with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). According to official documents, Shafi is supposed to be staying in a Rohingya camp with his family, but he is now a mobile banking agent in Mochnipara,” said Rashed Mohammad Ali, chairman of Hnila Union Parishad.

Attempts to contact Shafi proved unsuccessful, with his registered mobile banking number inactive in recent days. 

Local sources, speaking anonymously, said he had gone into hiding following a shootout between his group and another.

Law enforcement sources revealed troubling dynamics in Teknaf, situated on the border with Myanmar. Despite a low population and the absence of big business, the region sees record volumes of transactions through mobile banking, primarily attributed to the activities of drug and human traffickers, who have established a robust network exploiting mobile banking for illicit purposes. This network is predominantly controlled by some individuals from the Rohingya community.

Camps before and after 4pm

Upon visiting different camps in Ukhiya and talking with Rohingya youth on Friday and Saturday, this reporter learned of a stark transformation after government and non-governmental organization officials leave these places at around 4pm. Once seemingly ordinary camps undergo a rapid transition, becoming hotbeds of drug peddling and other illegal activities.

Members of different gangs, alongside brokers facilitating illegal immigration and kidnappers, maintain a low profile until then. They emerge in the evening, and the camps are transformed into bustling hubs of illegal transactions, predominantly facilitated through mobile banking.

Dhaka Tribune came to know that many locals also come to these temporary drug markets.

“If a person wants to go abroad and has to pay, let us say, Tk1 lakh to his broker, he does it through mobile banking… If one goes abroad by sea, one calls here to inform about one’s arrival, and the money is transferred here. Mobile banking is also used for buying gold ornaments. There are instances where ransom has been paid through mobile banking following kidnappings in camps,” a Rohingya youth told Dhaka Tribune.

What officials have to say

In response to inquiries, a Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) official said some Rohingyas residing in the Kutupalong camp were involved in drug and human trafficking, with several arrests having already been made. 

However, individuals who had returned to Myanmar were beyond their reach, he added.

Department of Narcotics Control Additional Director Md  Mazibur Rahaman Patwary said: “It is true that money earned from drug trading is being transacted through mobile banking. Such large transactions in small upazilas like Teknaf or Ukhiya obviously raise suspicion.”

This issue had come up throughout the course of different investigations, he added.

“We have also reached out to banks about the matter, to know how such big transactions are happening, why are they happening and who is making them – for better monitoring.” 

Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mohammed Mizanur Rahman highlighted the illegal nature of mobile phones in Rohingya camps. “We have also heard about illegal mobile banking. Sometimes a person is kidnapped and held captive in the hills. The condition is that the kidnappers have to be sent money through mobile banking. Once that happens, the kidnappers then release the abductee. These transactions can happen through mobile banking or an exchange of yaba tablets. Yaba is also a currency here.” 

A significant amount of money was being transferred out of the country, the official added.

When asked if there was any monitoring, the official said he had not seen any discussion on the matter in any committee. Money changers were also involved, he said, identifying hundi, an informal cross-border money-transfer system that bypasses the legal banking system, as a culprit.

Referring to Mizanur Rahman's comments on mobile banking as his observations, Ukhiya police station OC Shamim Hossain said he was unaware of the use of hundis in the camps. 

On the question of whether yaba smuggling had increased or decreased, he said the police had it under control.

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