The project, which is scheduled to be completed this year, is being implemented by the Bangladesh Navy
Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh are seemingly in the dark on the benefits, risks, and probable side-effects of relocation to the remote island of Bhashan Char, located in an estuary of the Meghna river.
The Bangladesh government assures a comfortable living for the relocated Rohingyas on the island, though the community appears to be unconvinced.
By the government’s plan, 103,200 Rohingyas out of more than a million currently sheltered in the cramped camps of Cox's Bazar will be moved to Bhashan Char under a project with an estimated cost of over Tk2,312 crore.
The project, which is scheduled to be completed this year, is being implemented by the Bangladesh Navy.
Bhashan Char, also known as Thengar Char, is located 21 nautical miles from Noakhali, 11 nautical miles from Jahajir Char, 4.2 nautical miles from Sandwip, 28 nautical miles from Patenga, and 13.2 nautical miles from Hatia.
The only mode of commute for residents of Bhasan Char, located 30km away from the mainland, will be vessels that take three to three-and-a-half hours to travel from Hatia.
Despite the reservations of both the Rohingyas and the international community, the government is still hopeful that the plan will help manage the massive refugee population in a disciplined manner.
One of the main concerns raised by Rohingyas against Bhasan Char is that they fear the island can be washed away by tidal surges.
The area, declared a forest reserve in 2013, is 10,000 acres at high tide and 15,000 acres at low tide.
No one has ever lived on the island before. It was mostly used for cattle grazing until the construction of shelters for the Rohingyas began.
The Rohingya community is also concerned that the relocated members will be cut off from NGOs and the international community currently working in Cox’s Bazar camps, providing food, shelter, education, and medical health care.
However, authorities say a very healthy and comfortable life, facilitated by the government itself, is waiting for the Rohingyas in Bhashan Char if they relocate.
Noakhali Deputy Commissioner Tanmoy Das said the Rohingyas may harbour these fears because of the separation from Cox’s Bazar. As a solution, a small number of refugees will be taken to the island beforehand to see the real scenario, so they can convince others to relocate.
Concrete homes and flood defence
Government officials are very optimistic about the relocation plan. They believe the Rohingya people would find the place suitable once they start living there.
According to the plan approved in November 2017, there will be 120 cluster villages with 1,440 houses to house the displaced Rohingyas. The houses will be built four feet above the ground, in order to protect the refugees from high tidal waves.
Each of the houses will have concrete breeze-block rooms measuring 2m x 2.5m with small barred windows, which are more habitable than the camps in Cox’s Bazar.
In order to protect the site from tidal floods and natural disasters, the island will have a 13km flood defence embankment, with a height of three metres and a width of 37 metres on a layer by layer basis.
“The 14 feet double embankment has been built to deal with tidal surges,” said Noakhali DC.
There will also be 120 cyclone centres to protect the Rohinygas from cyclones, according to the plan.
The ground floor of the cyclone shelters is four feet above the ground and the first floor is 10 feet above the ground floor. Refugees on the first floor of the shelters should be safe from tidal surges up to a height of 14 feet.
The shelter houses, whenever required, will also be used as clinics and community centres, said DC Tanmoy Das.
There will be modern hospital facilities, educational institutions, playgrounds for Rohingya children, and prayer houses for the community.
Currently, 22 people use one toilet in crowded camps in Cox's Bazar which will stand at one toilet for 11 people in Bhashan Char.
To ensure pure drinking water, there will be deep tube wells for the residents.
There will be a jetty, a dam, a fire service unit, and a meteorological office on the island. Solar power systems will be installed to ensure 24-hour electricity for residents.
There will be perimeter fencing and watch towers will also be built to ensure security for the rehabilitation project. A police camp has already been built there.
“There is also a silo there which will preserve food for the community,” said Das.
‘Bhashan Char will give them economic freedom’
Assuring the Rohingya people of a better living compared to the current life they are leading, Noakhali Deputy Commissioner Tanmoy Das said the island has been developed in a way that can not only ensure a comfortable living, but also help Rohingya people develop their lives socially and financially.
“They can choose to work here. We have developed the island in a way that they can work in cottage industries, agricultural work, fish farming, and animal husbandry. They can even set up shops here. It will make them economically independent,” said Das.
Some non-government organisations have already been contacted to purchase products produced by the community on the island, and to sell then outside with proper branding, he added.
“The Rohingyas can generate savings by doing this sort of work, and it will help them when they go back to Myanmar,” said the Noakhali DC.
Mohammad Abul Kalam, refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, said they will first take a delegation of Rohingyas to the island so they can see the development with their own eyes and convince others.
Secretary to the Disaster Management and Relief Ministry, Md Shah Kamal, told the Dhaka Tribune that the island will ensure a much better livelihood for the Rohingyas.
“Primarily we aim to take 100,000 people there. They will be able to lead humane lives with all necessary facilities there,” he said.
The secretary said the island is ready to receive new inhabitants, but could not say when the relocation process would begin.