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Rohingya relocation: What’s the future of costly Bhashan Char project?

  • Published at 01:14 am June 18th, 2019
Web_Bhashan Char
The photo, collected from project official Atikul Islam’s Facebook page, shows houses built under a project to accommodate Rohingya refugees in Bhashan Char, Noakhali, Bangladesh

Government blames international aid workers for Rohingyas’ unwillingness to move to the island, while UN system wants independent feasibility study

Bangladesh government appears to be clearly in a limbo regarding the relocation of a portion of the Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazar to Bhashan Char — which is located 21 nautical miles from Noakhali in an estuary of the Meghna River.

After speaking to several government officials, Dhaka Tribune has learnt that policymakers, including Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen, are uncertain about the future of the expensive project being implemented by Bangladesh Navy.

As of the first week of April, around Tk2,300 crore has been allocated for the project and another Tk700 crore has been sought, a senior government official told Dhaka Tribune.

“I understand that another Tk300 crore will be sought and the money will be allocated,” said the official.

The government and the international community, including the United Nations system, are at loggerheads on the issue of relocating 100,000 Rohingyas from the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar to Bhashan char.

On the other hand, the international community is in favour of de-congesting the settlements, but is of the opinion that any relocation should take place only after a feasibility study conducted by an independent panel of experts. They also say that any relocation must be voluntary and informed.

Aid agencies blamed

The plan to start relocating 100,000 Rohingyas could not go ahead in April due to the unwillingness of the refugees, for which the government officials have blamed the international aid agencies working in the camps.

The agencies are mainly responsible for this debacle, as they discourage the Rohingyas not to move to Bhashan Char, alleged the officials.

“We have heard that Rohingyas believe they will not survive if they are moved to Bhashan Char. How do they know it even though they have never travelled there? We have learnt that international aid workers told them that.

“Now, how do the aid workers know that without visiting the place?” said a senior Foreign Ministry official, who has thorough knowledge of the issue.

This correspondent, who recently visited the Rohingya settlements in Cox’s Bazar, found out truth in the official’s claims.

Quite a few Rohingyas said that they would prefer dying in Cox’s Bazar as Bhashan Char is uninhabitable. When asked how they knew since none had visited the island, the refugees said they were informed by the international aid workers.

Some of the international aid workers this correspondent spoke to, however, denied the allegation outright.

When contacted, Abul Kalam, the refugee relief and rehabilitation commissioner based in Cox’s Bazar, said: “It is still a government decision to relocate some of the Rohingyas from the congested camps to Bhashan Char; and we will work as per the government directive.”

To a question, he admitted: “I have also heard from my people on the ground that the Rohingyas are unwilling to move to Bhashan Char.”

Premature project?

There is also self criticism within the government about the development of the project at the cost of thousands of crores of taka from the exchequer.

Some officials believe that the decision to go ahead with the project was prematurely taken without considering all the aspects.

“Enough consultations were not done before going ahead with the plan," said a senior government official.

When asked about the future of the expensive project, the officials could not say anything except that continued effort would be made to make the Rohingyas understand that Bhashan Char would be a better place to live than the camps at Teknaf and Ukhiya.

While briefing foreign diplomats in Dhaka on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Momen had projected the positive aspects of the island.

“The Rohingyas, if relocated to Bhashan Char, will have rights to free movement and livelihood,” an envoy, who attended the briefing, quoted Momen as saying.

When contacted, an official of a UN organ, which co-chairs the Inter-Sector Coordination Group, said: “We’re not opposed to the relocation to Bhashan Char in order de-congest the settlements in Cox’s Bazar.

“What we say is that any relocation should be after conducting a feasibility study by independent experts.”