Bangladeshi authorities say they are ready to move some 100,000 Rohingya refugees to houses on a remote island in the Bay of Bengal. Although construction is completed, the UN has said the island "may not be habitable."
Bhashan Char is a small, sediment island that is vulnerable to flooding and cyclones. On Wednesday, Bangladeshi authorities said they would begin relocating Rohingya refugees to buildings that they have constructed on the island. The UN, rights activists and the refugees have all expressed opposition to the plan.
In early 2018, Bangladesh began constructing roads, shelters and floodwalls on the island, and it has spent an estimated $280 million (€247 million) completing the project.
Bhashan Char, which means "floating island," started to form in the Bay of Bengal 20 years ago from sediment building up at the mouth of the Meghna River. Map analysis shows the island is covered with tidal channels, which indicate that it floods during monsoon season.
Bangladesh plans to shelter around 100,000 Rohingya in 1,440 buildings it has built on the island.
Nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees currently live in overcrowded camps in Cox's Bazar on Bangladesh's border with Myanmar. Mozammel Huq, a senior Bangladeshi government minister, said on Wednesday that construction was complete and that the relocations would start next month.
Is Bhashan Char habitable?
Bangladesh's coastal region is vulnerable to cyclones. Hundreds of thousands of people have died over the past 50 years from storms and flooding. On Bhashan Char, a 13-kilometer (8-mile) long flood defense embankment surrounds the refugee barracks, and officials say it will stop tidal surges if a cyclone hits.
However, a top UN rights expert visited the island and said she wasn't convinced it is "truly habitable."
"Ill-planned relocations without the consent of the refugees have the potential to create a new crisis," said Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, who visited the island in January.
Shahed Shafiq, a local journalist who visited Bhashan Char a few months ago, says that the island is far from habitable. He points out that even during a normal high tide, most parts of the island are submerged.
"The island is uneven and even newly constructed roads go under water during high tide," he told DW. "Any cyclone could wash away the island easily."
Shafiq also pointed out that the island is located in the Bay of Bengal far away from the mainland. "It takes more than three hours to reach the island by a trawler, and the sea is often rough, which makes the journey risky," he added.
Rohingya reject the plan
Many Rohingya do not want to relocate to the island and activists fear that that the government may force them.
"Ever since the relocation plan was unveiled, many refugees have shown their unwillingness to move there," Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist based in Germany, told DW. "If anyone is moved there, it would be by force," he added.
"I have spoken with many representatives of the refugees and no one has shown interest. They want to stay where they are until they can go back to their homeland with protection and full rights," Lwin said.
Ansarullah Arman, a Rohingya refugee at the Nayapara camp in Cox's Bazar, told DW that the authorities at the camp have asked if any refugees are willing to relocate to Bhashan Char.
"Everyone has refused to move there from our camp," he said. "We will protest if they force us to move to the island."
Anything is better than Myanmar?
Nurul Islam, a Rohingya representative at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, said that some refugees, despite the poor conditions, may accept the offer to move to the island rather than return to Myanmar.
"We don't want to return to Myanmar without having citizenship," he said. "We were forced to leave the country because they brutally tortured us, killed our relatives and raped our women. We would prefer an island life instead of returning to Myanmar without any security."
Around 730,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar since 2017 to escape what the UN has referred to as a "textbook case of genocide." The refugees are crammed into the world's largest refugee camp in countryside surrounding Cox's Bazar. Aid groups say they are at risk of landslides, disease and floods. Bangladeshi authorities say relocating some of those refugees to the island will reduce pressure on the existing camp.
But despite the untenable situation at Cox's Bazar, activist Nay San Lwin said that the compound built on Bhashan Char was a "prison camp" for refugees because of its remote location. For Lwin, keeping Rohingya refugees near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border would be a better option.
"The Bangladesh-Myanmar border stretches 270 kilometers (170 miles). I believe there are many areas along the border where shelters can be built for Myanmar's genocide survivors," he said.
However, despite all of the warnings and reluctance from Rohingya, Bangladesh seems ready to go ahead with the plan.
"It's up to Bangladesh to decide where we will keep the refugees," said senior government minister Mozammel Huq.