A series of communal violence against Muslim minority, known to be Rohingya, has forced them to leave their homes in Myanmar and take shelter in Bangladesh. Myanmar military had retaliated for the attack the Rohingya militants led on Myanmar police posts that caused nearly 6,88,000 people to seek shelter in Bangladesh since last August. The worst retaliation the Rohingya community has ever seen.
Rohingya has made frequent escapes to Bangladesh in recent years. Although Bangladesh itself has a dearth of resources, it never ceases to help them out with best possible backing.
Refugee camps are being overpopulated with Rohingya in Bangladesh. Therefore, Bangladesh signed an agreement with Myanmar, to send them back to Myanmar within two months since last November, in order to lessen some of the burdens from the camps. Just days after the agreement, Bangladesh Govt. moved ahead with a controversial plan. To resettle about 1,00,000 Rohingya refugees living in camps to Bhashan Char, a remote, flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal.
Now the gradual repatriation of refugees to Myanmar from Bangladesh has been delayed. But the plan to shift refugees on the isolated island is still unchanged.
Bangladesh Navy has been asked to make Bhashan Char habitable for the refugees by the Government. Any disclosure of reporting concerning the project area of Bhashan Char has been restricted by the highest level of the government and I didn’t get permission to visit the Island. But a visit to the neighbouring island of Hatiya is possible. It takes less than an hour by speedboat from Southeastern district of Noakhali, from over the mouth of the mighty rivers of Brahmaputra and Ganges to visit Hatiya. Hatiya, a larger Bay of Bengal island that lies near the mouth of the Meghna River.
About 4,50,000 people live on the Hatiya Island. The key livelihood of the people of Island is agriculture and fishing. The fishermen are the only one who set foot on Bhashan Char sometimes.
“The Island looks beautiful, there are many trees. When I go for catching fish I sleep on the Island (Bhashan Char) at night,” says Amjad Hossain, a fisherman.
Bhashan Char is located 30km away from Hatiya, and a speedboat takes 30 minutes to get to the Char. Some locals carry their cattle on fishing boats to the Island for grazing, because of the massive green grass.
“ If Bhashan Char is used for the agriculture the land will be as fertile as Hatiya Island.” Said Mohammad Enamul Haque.
The 74-year-old has founded Dwip Unnayan Songstha (DUS) a non-governmental organization in 1982 in Hatiya. The DUS has been working in the social service sector by supporting the victims of the Liberation War, and the cyclone affected people of 1970 that devastated households on that island. Hatiya is a good place to live, he says but Bhashan Char, is a different story:
“Its a newly formed low line Island, lower than Hatiya. Also, it’s in alluvium form, and the whole Island is under the afforestation scheme of the Govt,” he said.
When asked about the rehabilitation of Rohingya refugees, he believes the Bhashan Char is a habitable Island.
“Once Hatiya was like that. People can live on Bhashan Char, but Govt. have to provide financial support to the people on the Island.” He added.
In the Bengali language “Bhashan Char” means “floating island”. It’s also not ancient as Hatiya, which was formed over 500 years ago. Bhashan Char emerged around 20 years ago. During the full moon or new moon half of the Island goes under the water, and during monsoon, 60% of the Island submerged under the water. The inhabitants of Hatiya have become accustomed to the tides for generations. Expecting same from the refugees is irrational.
In addition, just as young islands as Bhashan Char can disappear again. In order to make this Island habitable there have to be dykes and cyclone shelters, says the Geomorphologist Maminul Haque Sarker of Dhaka’s Centre for Environment and Geographic Information Services.
“Putting refugees is on the Island is not good. The erosion is going on the Island and there is uncertainty if it’ll stay for next 10-15 years,” Sarker said.
The plan was approved by Bangladesh's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, on November 28, last year. The project, hailed as “Ashrayan 3 (Shelter 3)”, is to be completed by the end of 2019, according to details of the $278 million plan released by the office of Mustafa Kamal, Bangladesh's minister of planning. The project will work in the direction of renovating the island including guarding people against the sea. It also plans to build 1440 barrack houses and 120 central shelters for refugees in the Northeastern part of the Island.
But why Govt. of Bangladesh is putting so much effort on an Isolated Island - in a controversial plan? The mayor of Hatiya Khandekar Muhammad Rezaul Karim has an answer - so there shouldn’t be any interaction between the Bangladeshi people and Rohingya.
“ Our Govt. thinks if they interact with locals there will be many types of relationships, they may get married, and they must have to return, so we’ll not keep any relationship with them,” he said.
Bangladesh has been applauded for accepting millions of Rohingya and providing them with shelter. But its decision of moving them to Bhasan Char has met with condemnation. However, Bangladesh holds that it can be only upon Bangladesh to take the decision where to shift the refugees.
In Cox Bazar’s Kutupalong refugee camp, Mohammad Ayyub who lost everything in Myanmar military’s brutal crackdown last year is not convinced with Bangladesh Govt.’s plan to move some Rohingya refugees to the Island.
“The engineer, the journalist, everyone is saying it’s not a right place to live. I don’t want to go there,” he said with a faded smile.
Aaquib Khan is a Mumbai based media professional. He tweets @kaqibb
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.