Bangladesh on Tuesday greenlighted a controversial plan to spend U.S. $280 million (23.12 billion taka) to move 100,000 Rohingya refugees from the mainland to a low-lying desolate island off its southern coast, where it intends to build shelters for them.
The move followed last week’s signing of a bilateral agreement with Myanmar that calls for the voluntary repatriation of some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who escaped to Bangladesh as they fled outbreaks of violence and brutal military crackdowns in Rakhine state since October 2016.
‘‘Though we have signed an agreement with Myanmar to repatriate Rohingya refugees, it needs a lot of time to send back this huge amount of refugees. But now many Rohingya people are living just under open sky, which is very inhumane. To make a shelter for them, we passed this project,” Planning Minister A.H.M. Mustafa Kamal told reporters in Dhaka.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina chaired Tuesday’s session of the National Economic Council’s executive committee, which approved the plan to relocate refugees who are sheltering at camps in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district to Bhashan Char (also known as Thengar Char), after building new temporary housing facilities for them there.
The influx into southeastern Bangladesh of 624,000 Rohingya over the past three months alone has strained resources at overcrowded refugee camps and settlements in southeastern districts that border Myanmar, according to the U.N. and humanitarian agencies.
Bhashan Char, which is known for being prone to flooding, is located near Hatiya, a larger Bay of Bengal island that lies near the mouth of the Meghna River. “Bhashan Char” means “floating island” in Bengali. In the past, the island was notorious as a hideout for pirates. The island measures 15,000 acres at low tide and 10,000 acres at high tide.
The plan calls for the government to develop 120 villages on Bhashan Char, where 1,440 barracks and 120 shelters will be built to house the refugees, officials said. The project, dubbed “Ashrayan 3,” is to be completed by the end of 2019, they said. In the local language, “Ashrayan” means “to shelter.”
The government says it will fund the project, but officials including the foreign minister have reached out to other countries to ask for international financial assistance in helping Bangladesh build up infrastructure on the island to make it habitable.
The government had come under criticism for talking about reviving the relocation plan, which it first broached in May 2015. The original plan called for moving 34,000 refugees from Cox’s Bazar to a 500-acre plot on Bhashan Char, local officials told BenarNews at the time.
Nur Khan, the executive director of Ain-O-Salish-Kendra (ASK), a leading Bangladeshi human rights organization, questioned why the government was now moving ahead with the plan so close on the heels of its repatriation deal with Myanmar, which is to be implemented within two months, according to the agreement.
“After approving this project, we have enough reason to suspect that the home return of Rohingya people is not possible,” Khan told BenarNews on Tuesday.
“And as far we know, this island is uninhabitable. In these conditions, shifting Rohingya refugees to this island is not rational and it is inhumane, too,” he said, adding, “It requires huge time and money to make this island livable. Within this short time and capacity, I don’t think, it will be possible.’’