The Bangladesh Navy has been given the responsibility to develop 13,000 acres of land on Bhasan Char in Noakhali to create temporary accommodation for up to 70,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar within the next two years.
Finance Division officials said the estimated Tk1,000 crore project will be funded entirely by the government and will include the “major challenge” of damming the char to protect it from regular flooding by seawater.
However, critics have derided the selection of Bhasan Char - formerly known as Thengar Char - saying it is isolated from the mainland and unsuitable for living. The char only surfaced in the Bay of Bengal about 25 years ago and has remained completely uninhabited, although the Forest Ministry planted some trees there in the last 15-20 years.
Under ideal weather conditions, it takes about 90 minutes to go to Hatiya Island from Noakhali in the mainland, and from there a speedboat takes 30 minutes to get to the Char.
In response to such concerns, the government said international observers would be asked to inspect the site after the construction of the overall infrastructure.
A senior official of the Land Ministry said the reservation and rehabilitation in Bhasan Char was also mentioned in the summary of the navy’s proposal. “Before the navy starts any development work officially on the Khasland at Bhasan Char, the government high-ups will have to make the final decision and clear the proposal first,” said the official.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina recently selected Bhasan Char for the creation of new camps for the Rohingya. Currently in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, she told a press conference on Saturday that that Rohingya would be able to stay there “comfortably”.
The Finance Division top brass along with Bangladesh Navy and Land Ministry officials visited Bhasan Char last week to see the situation on the ground.
“It will be one of biggest projects to be undertaken by the navy,” a Finance Division official said. “A large portion of Bhasan Char usually goes under seawater three months a year [so] the major challenge is the construction of an embankment across the Char to protect it from seawater.”
According to the Bangladesh Navy proposal, a small naval base to be manned by around 100 personnel and additional infrastructure will be developed to ensure the security of the people and refugees who will live on the island.
Noakhali Deputy Commissioner Md Mahbub Alam Talukder told the Dhaka Tribune on Monday that the embankment work at Bhasan Char is yet to start.
"A helipad and some buildings are now being built,” he said. “[And] we will take all measures to assist Bangladesh Navy in the development of Bhasan Char.”
In February this year, the government announced plans to rehabilitate the new influx refugees who began arriving from Myanmar in October 2016, drawing some criticism internationally.
Of the estimated half a million Rohingya refugees who are currently living in Bangladesh, around half have entered the country in the last 30 days after fleeing the latest escalation in violence in Rakhine State of neighbouring Myanmar.
The move to develop a new accommodation site on Bhasan Char follows concerns raised with the government last week by Cox’s Bazar Magistrate Md Ali Hossain about the potential for the Rohingya to disperse across the country.
In a letter to the Public Administration Division, Md Ali Hossain requested four platoons of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) to help transfer the refugees from the roadsides to the temporary camps in Kutupalong and Balukhali areas of Ukhiya.