On an early morning in late August, the sun had yet to burn through the clouds that spanned the horizon, heavy with the monsoon rains that batter Bangladesh every summer.
A line of cargo ships inched towards the bustling port city of Chittagong; tiny fishing vessels swayed and rocked in the choppy grey waters below. In the distance, 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from the mainland, an island slowly took shape: its low skyline punctuated by the silhouettes of four-story structures.
Twenty years ago, there would only have been water at this spot in the Bay of Bengal. Today, there is a small city on the low-lying island large enough to house 100,000 people.
Government plans to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya
It is here, on Bhasan Char, or the “floating island” as locals named the silt island that only recently emerged from the sea, that the government of Bangladesh is planning to relocate tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees. Possibly, as DW has learnt, against their will.
After lengthy negotiations with government officials, DW was taken to Bashan Char in a carefully managed visit by Bangladesh’s navy, which is overseeing the construction works. Throughout the stay several naval officers accompanied DW.
‘Textbook example of ethnic cleansing’
Plans to build housing for refugees on the uninhabited island in a cyclone-prone area have been in the making since as early as 2015.
But, following an influx of more than 730,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to Bangladesh from August 2017, the decision was taken by Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to forge ahead with the plan.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority, were fleeing an army clampdown that had intensified following coordinated attacks on several police stations by militants, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA, a militant group led by a small cadre from the Rohingya Diaspora in Saudi Arabia.
The army of Myanmar responded with force, burning and bombing villages in what the UN human rights chief has labelled a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Talk to refugees here, and all have harrowing tales of rape and murder.
Cox’s Bazar: Overcrowding and tense security
Bangladesh welcomed the refugees, settling them in makeshift camps that the authorities built close to the border and soon made up the world’s largest refugee camp.
In order to do so, Bangladesh — already one of the world’s most densely populated countries — ordered huge swaths of a lush nature reserve for elephants to be cut down.
The camps close to the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar are crowded, and despite huge efforts to stabilize the ground, there is a constant danger of landslides. In summer, it is stifling hot inside the huts made of corrugated iron and tarpaulin.
As night falls, and the many aid workers leave, security remains tense. DW heard tales of murders, abductions, and rapes.
And so, citing overcrowding and security, the prime minister’s office decided to give the Bhasan Char project top priority.
Bhasan Char: ‘Paradise’ for Rohingya?
Construction work on the silt island started in early 2018 and was rushed to completion in less than one and a half years at a total cost of $272 million (€248 million), according to Bangladesh’s Navy, which is overseeing the project.
DW was shown around an eerily quiet city: Rows of identical bungalows made of hollow concrete blocks and steel, clustered around a central courtyard with a pond. Each bungalow was made up of sixteen spartan but airy rooms, designed to house up to four people per room. Sixteen rooms shared two kitchens and two bathrooms with shower and toilet cubicles. There was also a rainwater harvesting system, solar power and biogas facilities. Police posts will provide security — and the Navy said it would soon install 120 cameras to monitor the camp.
The settlement, lead architect Ahmed Mukta, a genial man who commutes between London and Dhaka, told DW proudly, would be a “paradise” for the Rohingya. “There is no doubt about that … We will provide something to the Rohingya, they will remember it for their lives,” he said, smiling.
Construction almost complete
Mukta, whose company MDM Architects has a track record in building cyclone shelters across Bangladesh, conceded that he had only had a week for the initial design. But, he said, he was proud of what he had achieved.
As DW made its way along the main road, two sheep wandered past, while two workers leaned against a door, staring at the visitors. One of them told DW that, if he was offered a house, he would stay on the island. “It’s a good place to live,” he said.
From the roof of one of the island’s 120 cyclone shelters, rows and rows of identical red roofs stretched into the distance. The shelters — built to withstand winds up to 260 km per hour — can be used as hospitals, schools and community centers. DW also visited one such shelter that was being equipped with air conditioning and en-suite bathrooms, which could be used to house UN staff.
There would be 40 hospital beds, Mukta told DW, and, in the case of medical emergencies, refugees would be relocated to the nearest district hospital in Hatiya Island, which officials say is roughly one hour by boat.
The building works, DW was told, are all but complete, but for some of the multipurpose shelters. As soon as the decision is taken to relocate Rohingya, they could be shipped to the island by the Navy in a matter of weeks in groups of 400 to 500 refugees at a time. Mukta said that within a year or two, the settlement could be extended to house a further 400,000 people.
Rohingya: Don’t send us to Bhasan Char
But the Rohingya DW spoke to in Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar were adamant they wanted to stay where they were.
As a crowd of onlookers gathered around her, an elderly lady, Hamida Khatun, angrily shook her head: “We don’t want to go to Bhasan Char, because we heard it gets flooded and then people will die. Our children will be drowned — for them it’s another trap where they will lose their lives,” she said.
“Help us stay here”, she implored, as onlookers nodded their agreement. “In Bashan Char, we will be isolated.”
But in his wood-paneled office in the capital Dhaka, Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen told DW that his government might move the refugees to Bashan Char against their will. “If they are not willing, we will force them.”
It was high time for the refugees to resettle, he added, citing concerns that, as the Rohingya remained in the overcrowded camps, they might become radicalized.
Tensions have been mounting among the local communities and the Rohingya. The day DW visited Bhasan Char, two Rohingya were shot dead by Bangladesh police after they were accused of killing a local party official.
Foreign minister: Maybe we will force them
The Rohingya, Foreign Minister Momen said, “are coming up with problems. Again and again local people are getting killed. We cannot allow that. We need to maintain law and order. To do that, maybe we will force them to Bhasan Char.”
DW’s visit to Bhasan Char comes at a politically sensitive time — it follows an unsuccessful attempt in late August to repatriate several thousand refugees to Myanmar. But not a single refugee agreed to return amidst fears that their safety would not be guaranteed by the authorities there. They distrust the government that has long denied them full citizenship and restricted their movements to individual villages and townships.
Dhaka pressuring aid agencies
In order to garner support for its plan, the government of Bangladesh is putting pressure on the UN and other aid agencies shouldering the humanitarian effort to agree to relocating the refugees to Bhashan Char.
DW has seen minutes of a recent meeting between representatives of the Foreign Ministry and UN officials.
A government representative, according to the minutes, “strongly advised the UN Agencies to include Bhashan Char” in the Joint Response Plan (JRP) for 2020, which sets out the priorities for the aid agencies’ work. Otherwise, “the Government of Bangladesh would not be able to approve the JRP-2020 if Bhashan Char is not featured in the JRP,” according to the minutes.
The UNHCR’s spokesman in Dhaka declined to comment, but off-the-record UN officials agree that there is strong pressure on them to endorse Bhasan Char. One concern is that refugees may be contained on the island for years and their freedom of movement severely restricted. And, they say, splitting operations between Cox’s Bazar and Bhasan Char is logistically difficult.
Is Bhasan Char suitable for habitation?
Another major concern is whether the island is in fact suitable for habitation.
The Bay of Bengal forms a fragile, ever-shifting ecosystem in an area prone to cyclones: The murky water carries sediments, and, over time, islands are formed. Some wash away in strong tides, others stabilize over the course of several decades and are eventually used for fishing and farming and, finally, inhabited.
Bhasan Char, which only began to emerge from the sea less than two decades ago, is still a very fragile island and prone to erosion.
DW contacted several experts who all agreed that the frequency and intensity of cyclones would likely increase in the coming years. And, as climate change accelerates, the sea level is likely to rise considerably.
The settlement on Bhasan Char is currently protected by a three-meter-high embankment, as well as a first line of defense against erosion, including pylons, gravel and sandbags. This, officials say, is enough to protect the island, except in the case of cyclones.
In that case, they say, the island’s cyclone shelters, equipped with their own water and electricity supply, would provide protection. No one, the Navy told DW, would be evacuated in the case of a cyclone.
But the experts DW spoke to disagreed on whether this would be sufficient. Some said the embankment would have to be raised to double the height, others agreed with the Bengali officials that within the embankment refugees would be relatively safe.
Architect Ahmed Mukta bristled at the accusation the island might not be safe: “The people who make comment like ‘floating island,’ ‘unsafe island’ — they don’t understand the island, they haven’t seen the island.”
One man working in the little bazaar that had sprung up on Bhasan Char outside of the embankment to sell food to the up to 15,000 workers involved in the project, told DW there had been times when he had been unable to reach the island due to high tides.
Once, he said, the sea had been so rough he had feared for his life. And twice a month, the bazaar flooded at high tide, he said.
Government considers relocation without UN support
DW contacted the British company HR Wallingford, which the Navy consulted on the flood protection measures. It declined to comment but provided DW with a written statement: “We have been involved with the design of flood defenses for over 70 years and bring our knowledge and experience to help communities that are vulnerable to flooding around the world.”
“Our detailed technical studies consider a wide range of environmental factors and we continue to provide ongoing consultancy for Bhasan Char.”
It’s unclear if the government would forge ahead with its plan without the support of the UN and other aid agencies that are footing the multimillion-dollar bill for the ongoing humanitarian assistance for the refugees who depend on them for their survival.
When asked if he would relocate Rohingyas to the island even without the backing of UN agencies, Foreign Minister Momen told DW “yes, possibly. We can do that.”
And, he added angrily, if the United Nations did not endorse the plan, Bangladesh might ask them to leave the country. “We’ll do, if that is necessary, we will do [it].”
Back on the island, DW was shown the lighthouse name “beacon of hope.” One official gestured to a white wall that had been reserved for a plaque, once the prime minister officially inaugurated the island ahead of any relocation.
But, he conceded, it was unclear when that might actually happen.