An island in the Bay of Bengal developed to house tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees likely won’t be opened this year, Bangladeshi officials acknowledged Wednesday after earlier announcing that the prime minister would inaugurate the controversial facility in October.
Bangladeshi officials raced this year to finish building a residential complex on Bhashan Char island to ease congestion in Cox’s Bazar district, where most of the more than 700,000 Rohingya fled following a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2017.
“She has been very busy with electioneering. So the possibility of her visit to Bhashan Char before election is very slim,” Ihsanul Karim, the press secretary for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, told BenarNews, referring to the 71-year-old leader who has started a countrywide campaign for the Dec. 30 parliamentary polls.
Hasina told reporters in February that the plan to house the refugees on the flood-prone island would be temporary. Her government budgeted U.S. $276 million in the housing complex, a two-year construction project built under supervision of the Bangladeshi Navy.
Chinese construction company Sinohydro was involved in constructing a 13-km (8-mile) embankment designed to protect the island from flooding and HR Wallingford, a British engineering consultancy firm, had been involved on the project’s “coastal stabilization” measures.
The embankment, protected by steel sheet, would allow the island to withstand flooding and cyclones, an official involved in the Bhashan Char project told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
“The embankment will gradually be made 21-foot high,” he said, adding that some people had been farming freshwater fish and raising cattle inside the island to prepare for the possible arrival of refugees.
The official said there would be adequate water pumps to supply drinking water to the refugees on Bhashan Char, where workers had finished constructing two helipads. Two big ships and 20 high-speed boats would also be stationed on the island to help transport goods and refugees, he said.
Earlier on, human rights groups opposed the plan to bring Rohingya to the island and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) emphasized that the relocation plan must be “based on and implemented through voluntary and informed decisions.”
Last month, Rohingya refugees who live at camps in Cox’s Bazar staged a loud protest against a bilateral plan by Bangladesh and Myanmar to start repatriating Rohingya to Rakhine, as empty buses stood nearby, waiting to transport them across the border. The process of sending the first batch of refugees was scheduled to begin Nov. 15, but officials called off the repatriation plan indefinitely amid the protests.
Bangladesh officials had said previously that the island relocation plan would involve up to 100,000 Rohingya refugees from ramshackle camps in Cox’s Bazar, where they face flooding and landslides. But that plan, they said, would not take place without Hasina leading the inauguration ceremony on the island, about 30 km (21 miles) from the mainland.
On Wednesday, Joseph Tripura, a press officer with UNHCR’s Dhaka office, told BenarNews that a team the U.N. refugee agency had visited the island on Oct. 23.
“We need more such visits. We are yet to certify that the isle is habitable, as we do not know its latest condition,” he said.
Tonmoy Das, deputy commissioner of Noakhali district, which encompasses Bhashan Char, told BenarNews on Wednesday that Hasina was supposed to visit the island on Nov. 3 and inaugurate the relocation, but then officials cancelled that schedule.
“We are busy with election duties. We have not received any instruction to relocate the Rohingya before election,” Das said, emphasizing that it was difficult to predict whether the relocation would start before the end of December.
Hasina, during a news conference in Dhaka early this year, described Bhashan Char as “very nice,” adding that even though her government was planning to transfer 100,000 refugees there, the island was large enough to accommodate up to 1 million people.
Shah Rezwan Hayat, a joint secretary and chief of the Rohingya cell under the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, told BenarNews that about 90 percent construction work in Bhashan Char had been completed.
“The Rohingya can live there now,” he said. “But it will not be opened before the prime minister formally opens it.”