The National Economic Council of Bangladesh government has approved a controversial $280 million project to transform a desolate island off its southern coast into a temporary camp for 100,000 Rohingya refugees on Tuesday, despite warnings that the site is uninhabitable.
The announcement comes just days after Bangladesh signed an agreement with Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya refugees languishing in overburdened camps along its border.
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The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave the green light to the planned redevelopment of Bhasan Char – a project that has attracted fierce criticism since it was first proposed in 2015.
After the meeting, Planning Secretary Ziaul Islam said they hoped the island – 15km off the mainland – would be ready from May to accommodate some of the more than 620,000 Rohingyas that have crossed the border in the past three months.
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Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, centre, chairs a Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) meeting on Tuesday at the National Economic Council conference room in Dhaka's Agargaon on Tuesday, November 28, 2017 Focus Bangla
"Approximately one lakh [100,000] people will be shifted there for the time being. We hope the project work will be completed by 2018," he said.
"The navy has been given the task in an effort to expedite the (project) work."
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Apart from building shelters, low-lying areas of the island must be filled in and embankments erected around the entire perimeter to ensure it can resist tidal flooding, monsoon storms and seasonal cyclones.
The silty strip of land only emerged in the Bay of Bengal in 2006, and lies one hour's boat journey from the nearest inhabited island.
Dhaka last year shelved plans to turn the island into a way station for refugees amid warnings it could be completely inundated by floods.
But the scheme was revived in late August as unprecedented numbers of new Rohingya arrivals poured into Bangladesh's southernmost district, Cox's Bazar, placing enormous strain on limited resources and makeshift camps in the border region.
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Bangladesh Foreign Minister AH Mahmood Ali in September appealed for international assistance to transport the Rohingyas to the island.
But leaders for the persecuted Muslim minority remain opposed to the idea and a UN agency official warned that any attempt at a forced relocation would be "very complex and controversial".
The navy has built two helipads and a small road on the island in recent months but concerns persist over its suitability for human habitation, with experts warning it could be swallowed by tides and rising seas.