Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina this month will open a refugee housing complex on a flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal, with officials saying it is ready to accommodate 25,000 Rohingya from Myanmar who are sheltering in southeastern Bangladesh.
The government says it plans to relocate on a voluntary basis 100,000 Rohingya from refugee camps and settlements in the southeast to the tiny, barren and unpopulated Bashan Char island. Dhaka is spending U.S. $276 million in the two-year project to build housing and infrastructure there, as well as a retaining wall to protect the isle from flooding.
“The Bhashan Char project is ready for the relocation of Rohingya. The honorable prime minister is set to see the site sometime in October, and she will give us formal permission to start relocation,” Habibul Kabir Chowdhury, a joint secretary with the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on Friday.
“We will then start the process to relocate some 25,000 people in the first phase. No relocation date has been fixed. But we will try to expedite the process,” he said.
He did not give a precise date for when the prime minister would inaugurate the project, which is 80 percent built and scheduled for completion in November 2019.
Construction has been under way since last November to develop 10 percent of the island’s total surface area of 17,000 acres (6,880 hectares or 26.5 square miles) into a housing complex for the refugees equipped with a retaining wall and cyclone shelters, officials said.
The idea, they said, is to ease crowding in southeastern districts in mainland Bangladesh, where more than 1 million Rohingya refugees are sheltering in camps and settlements. These include 720,000 people who fled a brutal crackdown in neighboring Myanmar’s Rakhine that started in August 2017.
'Good basic amenities'
Chowdhury said a team from his ministry had visited the island, which lies of the coast of Noakhali district, and certified it as “liveable with good basic amenities.”
“We have installed an adequate number of tube wells for potable water. The ground water level is very good here,” he said.
There are also toilet and hygiene facilities.
“In Cox’s Bazar, 22 people use one toilet, but in Bhashan Char there will be one toilet for 11 people. There are adequate bathrooms, too,” Chowdhury added, referring to the southeastern district where refugee camps are largely concentrated.
Bangladesh has hired the Chinese mega state-firm, Sinohydro, to construct an embankment to safeguard the low-lying island’s future potential residential population from flooding. This part of the project will cost $25.2 million, officials said.
Sinohydro has operated in Bangladesh for two decades. The firm was also involved in a project to upgrade the Dhaka-Chittagong highway, which is a lifeline for Bangladesh’s economy.
Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi navy commodore who directs the Bhashan Char resettlement project, said construction of the embankment was complete.
“The project is very much habitable,” he told BenarNews.
‘We will not force them to go’
Mohammad Abul Kalam, the government’s commissioner for refugee relief and repatriation, said Rohingya refugees would be relatively more comfortable living in the new shelters on Bashan Char than in squalid camps in the southeast.
“The government is yet to decide the selection process. But what we can say is that we will not force them to go to Bhashan Char,” he told BenarNews.
“We have to decide the method to select 100,000 people from some 1.2 million people,” he added.
Officials, however, may find it challenging to persuade the refugees to move to the island. Some Rohingya interviewed by Benar expressed concerns about the plan.
“We have come to know that better houses have been built there, but we have not seen these. How can we go there without seeing?” Md Afzal, a Rohingya leader in Ukhia, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, said in a phone interview.
He said the government should send a Rohingya delegation to inspect the island.
“From here in Ukhia, we can maintain contact over the telephone with the Rohingya still living in Arakan, but we cannot do it from there. We want to stay near our homeland,” Afzal, using another name for Rakhine.
But another Rohingya camp leader, Abdul Aziz, said he was ready to go to Bhashan Char if the living conditions are better.
“Here, we 12 family members share one small room made of plastic. Water scarcity is severe. We must wait for hours to use toilets. We are ready to go to Bhashan Char, if we have better facilities,” he said.
Meanwhile, an official with the U.N.’s refugee agency (UNHCR) said it was holding ongoing discussions with the government about the possible voluntary transfer of refugees to the island.
“The proposed relocation of refugees to Bhashan Char is the government’s plan, and the U.N. is grateful to the government of Bangladesh for exploring alternative locations for the refugees,” UNHCR official Joseph Tripura told BenarNews.
Such a mass movement of refugees could relieve congestion in the refugee settlements of Cox’s Bazar, he said.
UNHCR and the government had done a joint technical assessment of the island last month, he added.
“We stand ready, and have offered, to carry out further assessments, which would enable us to thoroughly consider the safety, feasibility, and habitability of Bhashan Char for refugees,” he said.
“The U.N. has consistently stressed that protection considerations relating to the proposed relocation must be addressed, and that additional technical and protection assessments must take place before any relocation can occur,” he went on to say. “Refugees must also begin to be consulted about the proposed relocation.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.