Even two years ago, Bhashan Char – located around 39km away from Noakhali in an estuary of the Meghna River – was covered in a shroud of grass and mangrove trees. But now the desolate islet has taken a new look altogether with buildings painted pink.
The island, which emerged in the Bay of Bengal in 2006, has been developed as an eco-friendly human habitat to relocate nearly 1 lakh Rohingyas to relieve the overcrowded mainland camps in Cox's Bazar where around a million took shelter fleeing a military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017.
Bhashan Char is now ready to receive Rohingyas, said an official concerned. From houses for living, solar panels for electricity, biogas fuel for cooking and waste management system, cyclone centres, mobile phone network – everything is available for them.
The Rohingyas, however, are reluctant to go to the uninhabited island on the grounds that it is a cyclone-prone region.
The government blamed the international aid agencies for its failure to relocate 1 lakh Rohingyas in April. Aid workers discourage the refugees not to move to Bhashan Char, alleged government officials.
The United Nations opines that the relocation should take place only after an independent feasibility study but it has to be voluntarily.
In December 2017, the government took up Ashrayan Project 3 at a cost of Tk2,312 crore to relocate 1 lakh Rohingyas from Cox's Bazar to Bhashan Char.
On a visit to Bhashan Char, it was seen that the project site has been developed with 120 plots, each consisting 12 buildings, including a cyclone centre.
The whole island is almost solar-powered with solar systems installed on rooftops of all 1,440 buildings, including 120 cyclone shelter centres. The buildings have around 52,000 lights. Around 1,000 solar-powered street lights illuminate the island's streets at night.
The ponds – each 5,461 square feet – will be used as alternative sources of water. Besides, there are also rainwater harvesting facilities in all cluster houses.
Roads stretching around 42km have been constructed for internal communication. Human haulers and battery-run rickshaws will ply the roads.
The mobile phone network on the island is provided by Grameenphone and Robi. A fire station is also there.
Project Director Commodore Mamun Chowdhury told The Business Standard, "We have completed 98 percent work of the project. We are ready for receiving Rohingyas."
"We have built a 9-foot high flood protection embankment," he added.
The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council has recently approved increasing the embankment height to 19 feet.
The housing units
Each building has the capacity to accommodate 16 families in 16 rooms. Each family, comprising four persons, will get a room to live in. So one building will house 64 persons – meaning 768 persons in each block, according to Bangladesh Navy.
A person will have an average of 3.6 square metres as his or her living area. The UN's emergency minimum standard is 3.5 square metres per person.
There are four steel-made beds, a ceiling fan and a light in each room.
Every 16 families have to share two kitchens with eight cooking stoves for each.
There are a total of six toilets and four bathrooms in each building.
Besides, there are four warehouses for storing food and other items. There are also two big lakes on the island.
The cyclone centres can accommodate 1,000 people and 200 cattle during a storm.
Two shelter centres will be used as hospitals, two for law enforcement authorities and two for UN representatives, general administration and the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner.
Three of the centres will be used as mosques, one as a super shop and four as community clinics.
There are also buildings for Red Crescent, local and international NGOs.
An orphanage, a day-care centre and guest houses have also been built there.
Scopes of livelihood
Although there are limited scopes of earning in the existing Rohingya camps in Cox's Bazar, there will be various means of livelihoods on Bhashan Char.
According to Bangladesh Navy, the possible ways of earning can be fishing, poultry farming, sheep and cattle rearing, cultivation of rice and vegetables, carpentry, handicrafts, tailoring and providing different community services.
Bangladesh Navy has already planted paddy, vegetables and trees there.
Relocation plan faces setback
The plan for relocating 1 lakh Rohingyas from Cox's Bazar to Bhashan Char has got stuck as the refugees are not interested to go to the island, saying it is a cyclone-prone area.
Rohingyas are concerned about how they will get help in any emergency situation on the char which is disconnected from the mainland.
"If we shift to Bhashan Char, we will face another disaster there as the Island is vulnerable to cyclone. It will be difficult to communicate with our relatives who are still living in Burma [Myanmar]," said Renu Ara, who resides at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar.
However, some Rohingyas are interested about going to Bhashan Char.
Moulana Saber, leader of Camp-4 in Kutuplaong, told The Business Standard, "We want to return to Myanmar with dignity. If the repatriation process is delayed, we are ready to go to Bhashan Char."
Although the UN has praised Bangladesh's efforts to find alternative locations for Rohingyas to relieve the overcrowded camps in Cox's bazar, it has insisted that the relocation be voluntary.
At a briefing in March this year, they urged the government to consider the "critical protection and operational issues before any relocations of Rohingya refugees to the island of Bhasan Char take place."
The UN statement said the viability of the relocations would require "thorough assessments" and "careful planning".
The UN has emphasised the importance of undertaking independent and thorough technical and protection assessments that consider safety, sustainability, and protection issues prior to any relocation taking place. The assessment process should include onsite visits to Bhashan Char.
An initial mission was scheduled in November but the UN and the government agreed to postpone the visit to ensure that the right experts are on hand and all necessary logistical arrangements are in place.
"We are awaiting confirmation from the government regarding alternative dates, as we have shared relevant information with the government of Bangladesh regarding the objectives of the proposed onsite visits, which are part of a broader assessment process," UN High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) Spokesperson in Dhaka Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain told The Business Standard on Sunday.
When contacted, State Minister for Foreign Affairs Md Shahriar Alam said, "The relocation will take place with the consent of the United Nations. The UN team will visit the island soon, then we will fix a date for the relocation of those who are willing to go. The relocation will be voluntary, there will no pressure on them."
Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner to Cox's Bazar Md Mahbub Alam Talukder told The Business Standard, "We have talked with the Rohingyas. Many gave their consent to go to Bhashan Char. We will arrange relocation of those who want to go there after the date has been fixed."