DHAKA: Thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled violence in Myanmar in search of refuge could be forced to make their new homes on a barren Bangladeshi island that floods every year.
The Bangladesh government has appealed for international support to move the Rohingya to the island as the impoverished country confronts a growing crisis over where to house an influx that has mounted following a military crackdown in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
More than 300,000 Rohingya have poured into Bangladesh since the latest flare-up in violence on August 25, adding to around 300,000 refugees already living in overflowing UN-run camps in Cox’s Bazar district, close to the border with Myanmar.
The surge has overwhelmed the Bangladesh authorities, who are scrambling to find land to build more camps, including on the inhospitable and uninhabited Thengar Char island — recently renamed Bhashan Char — despite reluctance on the part of Rohingya leaders and UN officials.
Bhashan Char, located in the estuary of the Meghna river, is a one-hour boat ride from Sandwip, the nearest inhabited island, and two hours from Hatiya, one of Bangladesh’s largest islands.
The authorities first proposed settling Rohingya refugees there in 2015, as the camps in Cox’s Bazar became overstretched with new arrivals.
But the plan was apparently shelved last year amid reports that the silt island, which only emerged from the sea in 2006, was unhabitable due to regular tidal flooding.
The government is trying to find more space for the Rohingya, including establishing a new 2,000-acre (800-hectare) camp near Cox’s Bazar, close to the Myanmar border, which will house around 250,000 Rohingya.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was to visit the construction site on Tuesday.
As the exodus swells however, there are fears that may not be enough to accommodate all those in need of shelter.
As a result, the Bangladesh government is speeding up work at Bhashan Char with a view to building a 10,000-acre facility that can house hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.
But they face huge challenges.
A police official in the region told that the island, which is used sporadically by fishermen and farmers seeking to graze their animals, was susceptible to tidal flooding once or twice a year.
“I think the island needs… massive infrastructure before it gets habitable,” the official said.
The presence of the Bangladesh Navy, which is involved in developing the island, has deterred pirates who used to operate in the seas around Bhashan Char.
“The Navy has… already set up two helipads and are now building roads and a shed for their use”, said Mahbub Alam Talkukder, a government administrator based in the region.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H Mahmood Ali on Sunday appealed for international assistance to help transport the Rohingya to Bhashan Char during a meeting with diplomats and UN officials.
But Rohingya leaders remain opposed to the move, while a UN agency official warned that any attempt at a forced relocation would be “very complex and controversial”.
The Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority, have faced decades of persecution in Myanmar where they are regarded as illegal immigrants, despite having lived there for generations.
Exhausted refugees in Cox’s Bazar told they did not want to move yet again.
“I fled my village in Rakhine to escape murder at the hands of the Burmese,” said Ayubur Rahman, a 26-year-old who fled Rakhine before the latest violence erupted.
“I don’t want to go to the island,” he said.
“I would rather stay here.”