The government may not be able to follow through on its plan to relocate Rohingya refugees to Thengar Char, a desolate island in Noakhali, any time soon as the place is far from habitable, according to official reports.
The reports, prepared by Noakhali district administration and the district office of Forest Department, particularly mentioned the difficulty in communication and the frequent flooding of the island which make it inhabitable.
Earlier this month, the government decided to rehabilitate Rohingya refugees – both old and new – to Thengar Char in order to provide humanitarian support to them.
Following that decision, the Noakhali administration conducted a study at the island with the help of the local forest officers.
Based on their findings, the district administration sent a letter to the office of chief conservator of forests on February 5, who in turn sent a letter to the Ministry of Environment and Forests on February 7.
The Dhaka Tribune obtained the copies of the letters.
‘Ghashiar Char is fit for human habitation. It has 500 acres of forest land and two government housing projects is in progress on the island’
In its letter, the district administration has suggested not using Thengar Char at all for the rehabilitation.
It says the island is 18-20km away from the district's Hatia upazila – the island is also nearly 80km away from the Noakhali city centre.
Commuting to Thengar Char is possible by boats only, and the journey between the island and Hatia takes 2-2.5 hours, which is both time consuming and expensive, it said.
The letter also mentioned the frequent submergence of the island during high tides. Added to that is the floods during natural calamities.
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The district administration recommended Ghashiar Char, another island which is only a few kilometres far from Hatia, for relocation of Rohingyas.
“Ghashiar Char is fit for human habitation. It has 500 acres of forest land, and two housing projects of the government is in progress on the island,” says the letter.
It also mentions that the district administration made a similar recommendation to the authorities concerned in 2015.
Noakhali Deputy Commissioner Badre Munir Ferdous said the district administration had strongly recommended construction of embankment, cyclone shelters and setting up sources of drinking water before moving the Rohingyas into the island.
The letter sent from the office of the chief conservator to the ministry, on the other hand, did not completely dismiss Thengar Char, but said it needed massive infrastructural development in order to make it habitable, i.e. houses, schools, hospitals, cyclone centres, etc.
It also emphasised the lack of security in the area and suggested that the ministry run some more surveys on the island.
[caption id="attachment_45718" align="aligncenter" width="800"]
Thengar Char frequently gets submerged in tidal waves, making it uninhabitable for humans. The photo was taken on February 2, 2017 Photo: Reuters
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Chief Conservator of Forests Md Shafiul Alam Chowdhury was unavailable when the Dhaka Tribune contacted him for a comment on Tuesday.
Thengar Char is nearly 10,000 acres and is situated at the junction of the Meghna River and the Bay of Bengal, which makes it highly affected by the tides every day.
Locals said the island rose above sea level 11 years ago and has never had human habitations.
Since Thengar Char is a remote island – which still does not have mobile phone network coverage – it is the perfect hideout of pirates and robbers, not to mention drug and firearms smugglers, they added.
However, the authorities concerned are convinced that the island can be turned into a habitable place for the Rohingya refugees.
A number of top policy-makers of the government, including the prime minister's Military Secretary Maj Gen Mia Mohammad Zainul Abedin, have already visited the island and directed Hatia UNO Khandaker Rezaul Karim to get started on the construction of a helipad, a jetty and deep tube-wells, among other things.
“After the development work, there will be no problem. The Rohingyas can live here and take up fishing for a living,” said Mahbub Morshed Liton, chairman of Hatia Upazila Parishad.
The government estimates that there are around 400,000 Rohingyas currently living in Bangladesh, including the nearly 70,000 new refugees who came to Bangladesh to flee the military crackdown on Rohingya Muslim-dominated Rakhine state following a series attacks on Myanmar border posts on October 9 that killed nine policemen.
Earlier in 2015, the government suggested relocating the Rohingyas refugees to Thengar Char, but that plan was put on hold in the face of strong opposition by human rights groups.
Interestingly, when the Dhaka Tribune contacted him on Tuesday, Environment and Forests Minister Anwar Hossain said he had no information regarding the relocation of Rohingyas.
“My ministry has not had any official discussion with the authorities concerned and the policymakers about this matter,” he added.