With the promise of a better life, Bhasan Char awaits Rohingya refugees

Floating in the Bay of Bengal is a tiny island, with its lush greenery offering a sharp contrast from the sprawl of multi-storey buildings with distinct red roofs, built in blocks. While the name "Bhasan Char" might typically evoke idyllic images of white sands and crashing waves, the reality is quite different. 

The island, which forms part of the Char Ishwar Union under Noakhali's Hatia thana, covers an area of around 13,000 acres and is now ready for habitation.

A portion of the over 1 million Rohingya refugees, who have fled death and persecution in Myanmar's volatile Rakhine State and took refuge in Cox's Bazar, will find a temporary abode in Bhasan Char.

The government has spent over Tk 30 billion on providing shelter on the island to more than 100,000 refugees along with access to amenities such as cooking facilities, electricity, water and sewerage systems, playgrounds and cyclone shelters.

In all, the project comprises 120 cluster villages with 1,440 rooms and 120 shelter stations.

But the process of relocation has been delayed in the face of objections to the move raised by international organisations, including the United Nations, and the reluctance of the Rohingya refugees themselves.

Among the main concerns of international organisations is the geographical location of Bhasan Char. They expressed concerns about the safety of the Rohingya in case a cyclone and tidal surge bears down on the isolated island in the middle of the sea.

They have also sought assurances on whether there are adequate measures in place to address any urgent humanitarian needs of the Rohingya on the island.

MOVE TO ADDRESS CONCERNS

According to Commodore Abdullah Al Mamun Chowdhury, the director of the Bhasan Char Shelter Project, no cyclone has cut its path through the island in the last 176 years. The closest storm was actually 36 nautical miles away.

“All kinds of arrangements have been made to provide shelter to 100,000 Rohingya. Shore protection measures have been taken to protect the shores from waves and tides. The facilities and amenities needed to have a good life are all here, which is not the case with the camps in Cox's Bazar."

Each room is capable of accomodating four people.

WHAT WILL THE HOUSING PROJECT OFFER?

A group of journalists were taken on a tour of the island last week to assess the situation in Bhasan Char.

Those who have witnessed the inhumane living conditions in the crowded camps in Cox's Bazar can attest to the project director's claims of offering a better life to the Rohingya on Bhasan Char after a first-hand look at the infrastructure and facilities that are in place there.

A high embankment spanning 1,702 acres encircles the island to protect it from high tides and tidal surges.

Within this, 432 acres of land accommodates the housing project while another 916 acres have been reserved for future expansion and afforestation plans.

The housing project in Bhasan Char, named Asrayan-3, is primarily based on the concept of cluster villages comprising houses and shelter stations which have been constructed with concrete blocks and stand four feet above ground level.

Each cluster village consists of 12 houses, each with 16 rooms. Each room is capable of accomodating four people.

While the United Nations' standard requires the provision of a floor area of 37 square foot per person, the rooms in the cluster houses are much more spacious, according to the project director.

Each house has separate toilets and bathrooms for men and women as well as a kitchen.

For every cluster, there is also a four-storey composite shelter station. These shelter stations are capable of withstanding cyclones with wind speeds of up to 260 km.

In all, the project comprises 120 cluster villages with 1,440 rooms and 120 shelter stations.

Each room has separate toilets and bathrooms for men and women as well as a kitchen.

The project has also established a proper drainage system exists along with the supply of pure drinking water to every household. Solar panels have also been set up on the roofs of the houses.

Two playgrounds have been built in the area while each cluster house has an open space where children can play.

The project also includes an orphanage, day-care centre for children, super shop, barbershop, mosque and a marketplace. Each cluster will also have its own pond while grounds have been dug up in the project area to create a few more ponds and lakes.

Residents will further have access to two 20-bed hospitals and four community clinics.

Separate buildings have also been constructed to house UN representatives, RRRC representatives and members of the Red Cross and other NGOs.

A 91-feet high lighthouse has also been constructed on the island, which is capable of providing navigational assistance to vessels that are up to 14 nautical miles away.

WHY BHASAN CHAR?

More than 1.1 million Rohingya are currently taking refuge in Bangladesh. At least 750,000 of Muslim-minority people fled to Bangladesh following a crackdown in the Rakhine State by the Myanmar army in August 2017. Around 500,000 were already living in Bangladesh prior to the crackdown, which the United Nations has described as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’

In order to provide shelter to the forcibly displaced Rohingya, Bangladesh has built the largest refugee camp in the world in the coastal district of Cox's Bazar.

The government, with the support of various international organisations led by the United Nations, has been striving to meet the urgent needs of these people.

According to the Office for Refugee Relief and Repatriation's estimates, about 860,000 Rohingya now live in the refugee camps set up across 6,500 acres of land in total.

In some parts, there are around 30-40 thousand people in every square kilometre. The population density in these areas is also the cause of various social problems for the Rohingya refugees.

Taking these issues into account, the government decided to relocate a part of the refugee population elsewhere. The authorities subsequently chose Bhasan Char, situated in the Meghna River's estuary near Hatia.

Previously, the uninhabited island was mainly used as a pasture for cattle and buffaloes.

In 2013, the island was declared a protected forest by the government.

Bhasan Char sits between Sandwip and Hatia in Noakhali. It is 4.5 nautical miles west of Sandwip and 13 nautical miles east of Hatia. Ships sailing from Chattogram to Dhaka and other destinations in the country navigate along Bashan Char's channel.

It takes about two hours on a speedboat to reach Bhasan Char from mainland Chattogram.

The Asrayan-3 project was approved by the Executive Committee on the National Economic Council or  ECNEC in November 2017.  Bangladesh Navy has been implementing the Tk 30 billion project in line with the directives of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. As the steering committee convener, the principal secretary to the prime minister monitored the overall progress of the project.

Solar panels have been set up on the roofs of the houses. Project officials expect to generate 1 megawatt of power from solar panels and another 2 megawatts from fuel-powered generators to meet the demands of the island's new inhabitants.

A 9-foot high embankment has been constructed to fend off high tides and tidal surges, which will be later extended to 19 feet, according to the project director.

A coastal green belt is also being set up around the island to protect it from storms and tidal surges.

A jetty has been constructed on the island to facilitate the transportation of goods as well as people. Three mobile operators have also erected network towers on the island, allaying any concern over communication.

Project officials expect to generate 1 megawatt of power from solar panels and another 2 megawatts from fuel-powered generators to meet the demands of the island's new inhabitants.

Four storage facilities have been built to preserve food for 100,000 people for three months.

A 91-feet high lighthouse has also been constructed on the island, which is capable of providing navigational assistance to vessels that are up to 14 nautical miles away.

Currently, the island is housing 306 Rohingya refugees, who were rescued from Bangladeshi waters earlier this year.

Recently, a group of 40 people from a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar was taken to the island to see the housing facilities there.

The feedback they provided on their return was positive. But the relocation process is still on hold due to the concerns voiced by international organisations.

Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen recently told reporters that there was "pressure" on the government from UNHCR and NGOs not to send Rohingyas to Bhasan Char.

When contacted via email for comment on the matter, Louise Donovan, communications officer of UNHCR, told bdnews24.com that the UN has informed the government that it would be prepared to undertake a protection visit to Bhasan Char to meet with the Rohingya refugees transferred to the island and assess their "immediate humanitarian and protection situation and specific needs."

"Terms of reference have been shared with the government, and we are continuing to await feedback. Several months have passed since the refugees were transferred to Bhasan Char," she said.

"However, the above is separate from the broader set of protection and technical assessments. The UN’s longstanding position remains that comprehensive technical and protection assessments to evaluate the safety and sustainability of life on Bhasan Char are essential before relocations to the island take place and that any relocations should be voluntary. The UN has long been prepared to proceed with this onsite assessment work."

A farm with thousands of buffalos have been developed in Bhasan Char.

WHAT SETS THE PROJECT APART

The Rohingya refugees will enjoy a better life once they are transferred to Bhasan Char, according to the authorities.

There, they will have access to education, medical facilities, a better social standing and to a limited extent, employment opportunities. The Rohingya people will be able to work in different projects taken up by the Bangladesh Navy and the local administration.

A thousand buffalo farms have already been established in Bhasan Char, with some pilot projects on poultry, fruit and crop farming under the supervision of the navy.

The shelter houses in Cox’s Bazar camps are made of bamboo and tarpaulin, posing a high risk to the habitants during any natural disaster. The rooms in Bhasan Char are much sturdier as they are made of concrete.

The Navy has launched sheep farming under a pilot project.

The groundwater level is also dropping every day in Teknaf due to the dense population in the camps, while Bhasan Char has ample supply of fresh drinking water from its lakes, ponds and water supply system.

In contrast to the camps in Cox’s Bazar camps, Bhasan Char will have adequate power supply.

The huge Rohingya population in Teknaf's camps is causing great harm to the ecosystem, resulting in increased air pollution, landslides and water pollution. The refugees in the Teknaf camps rely on wood or coal for cooking. But the houses in Bhasan Char will have biogas and eco-friendly stoves.

The Bhasan Char project also contains forestation plans while the risks of air pollution, landslides or water pollution is also much lower on the island.

Dairy farms, paddy and vegetable farming, handicraft and sewing work for women along with some tourism projects are also in the works to boost local economic activities.

The officials also said that there will be a system through which jobs will be given to the Rohingya refugees in these projects with remunerations.