DHAKA, Sep 3
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Courtesy The Indian Express