Bhasan Char is ready to take in Rohingya refugees

Bangladesh plans to move 100,000 refugees to reduce the pressure on overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar. The swampy island emerged in 2006 and is regularly hit by monsoons. The UN is not yet ready to endorse the relocation without visiting the island first.

Dhaka (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Bhasan Char Island, in the Gulf of Bengal, is ready to receive 100,000 Rohingya refugees, said yesterday Mahbub Alam Talukder, Bangladesh Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner.

The island is subject to regular floods, but protection embankments have been built in the past few months to deal with the problem. Housing, shops and mosques have also been built.

“Bhasan Char is ready for habitation. Everything has been put in place,” Talukder said.

Plans to move Rohingya refugees began in late 2018 in order to ease the pressure on the camps in Cox’s Bazar, in particular that of Kutupalong, on the border with Myanmar.

Over 740,000 Muslim refugees poured over the border into Bangladesh after August 2017, fleeing fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).

Bangladeshi authorities expect the transfer of 100,000 people to begin in April. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly stated that Bangladesh can no longer bear the refugee burden.

For their part, the Rohingya oppose voluntary repatriation to Myanmar, at least until the latter guarantees them security and citizenship rights.

Instead, they would rather remain in Cox’s Bazar than go back despite the fact that schooling is not allowed, crime and extremism are rampant, and sanitation is inadequate.

International media and agencies are not currently allowed on the island, but a Bangladeshi freelance journalist, Saleh Noman, did visit it recently.

“I saw a market with about 10 grocery shops and roadside tea stalls. Some were selling fish and vegetables,” he said.

Bangladesh has spent at least US$ 280 million to bolster the swampy island, which is about an hour by boat from the mainland.

Refugees and experts have criticised the decision to set the island aside for refugee settlement because it is prone to flooding during the monsoon season. The island itself emerged only in 2006, and many people doubt it can resist high winds and monsoon flooding.

Mostofa Mohamamd Sazzad Hossain, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangladesh, said that the agency isn’t ready to endorse the relocation and is waiting for a chance to visit the island after a November trip was cancelled.

However, one of the contractors involved in the project said: “We have built quality infrastructure. Bangladeshi villages have never seen such good work. This is like a modern township project.”

He went on to say: “We have built multifamily concrete homes, hospitals, mosques, schools, playgrounds and roads. There are solar-power facilities, a water supply system. We constructed raised concrete buildings that could be used as cyclone shelters. Many trees have been planted.”