Finance Minister AMA Muhith on November 7 refused a proposal by the Bangladesh Navy seeking special allocation of Tk50 crore for the primary construction of a forward operating base (security infrastructure) at Bhashan Char, throwing in doubt the controversial plans of the government to relocate Rohingya refugees to the remote island.
According to a document obtained by Dhaka Tribune, Muhith responded to the proposal writing: “Postponing the initiative now is the right decision. While we are trying to negotiate their return, any initiative for permanent rehabilitation this winter [November to March] would not be a wise decision. So the provisional allocation is off the table.”
The finance minister’s refusal coincides with other developments, including a working draft on the repatriation of Rohingyas between Bangladesh and Myanmar. The decision to relocate Rohingyas to the remote island had also garnered negative attention from the start, including criticism by UN officials and international media.
Earlier the Bangladesh Navy was tasked to develop 13,000 acres of land on Bhashan Char, located in Hatiya, Noakhali, to create temporary accommodation for as many as 70,000 Rohingya refugees within the next two years.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on September 18 said the Rohingya people, who fled the military crackdown in Rakhine, would be shifted to Bhashan Char from Cox’s Bazar, where over 607,000 refugees are currently residing.
The Prime Minister’s Office has also taken an initiative to accommodate 100,000 Rohingya people from Teknaf and Ukhiya with help of Bangladesh Navy, according to the proposal.
Bhashan Char is an isolated island that surfaced in the Bay of Bengal about 25 years ago and is uninhabitable as it is usually submerged most of time. The navy can only work on the construction projects in winter, according to data collected by the Forest Department. It was formerly known as Thengar Char, but later renamed to Bhashan Char.
The navy has already started work on a helipad and roads, with a 100-metre wide dam and other infrastructure waiting for funding from the Ministry of Finance. The navy is also slated to construct an island-wide embankment, build shelters, drinking water systems, cyclone shelters, schools, mosques, sewerage lines and electricity lines, another helipad, and dig ponds.
The Bangladesh government’s decision to relocate the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to Bhashan Char has been criticized by international organisations and human rights activists from the start.
During a press conference in September, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Bangladesh must not force the Rohingya people who have fled Myanmar to move to camps on a desolate island.
In an interview with the Guardian in February, Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said the relocation plan of the Bangladeshi government “as punitive plans” would put the Rohingya refugees at risk.
Many other foreign diplomats and government officials have criticized the relocation plan as well.
The island of Bhashan Char is prone to flooding, and is home to numerous pests, which would make any life on the island miserable. In addition, the remote location effectively makes the island appear even more hostile, especially during monsoon.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, Foreign Secretary M Shahidul Haque said the government had drafted a proposal for an agreement with Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya.
“We are taking all kind of preparations to solve the crisis, and peaceful efforts are still underway. The foreign minister will meet Myanmar officials on November 23 in this regard,” he said.