Bangladesh prepares to move Rohingya to island at risk of floods and cyclones

Foreign affairs minister defends controversial proposal as ‘only solution’ despite misgivings of human rights campaigners

The first Rohingya refugees could be relocated to an island in the next few months under controversial plans drawn up by the Bangladesh government, the country’s state minister of foreign affairs has said.

Some of the nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees who fled a military crackdown in Myanmar and are now living in camps in Cox’s Bazar will be relocated to the silt island of Bhasan Char in the estuary of Bangladesh’s Meghna river, accessible only by boat.

The proposal has concerned human rights groups and NGOs who are particularly worried about Bhasan Char’s isolation – the island is prone to severe flooding and cyclones and is more than a three hour boat ride from the mainland. Rohingya people living in the camps have repeatedly said they will not go out of fears for their safety.

map of Bhasan Char

But speaking to the Guardian, minister of foreign affairs Shahriar Alam said the plan would go ahead, with the first refugees expected to arrive there within two to three months.

“The plan is to give the refugees a better shelter,” Alam said.

Despite Bangladesh’s vulnerability to cyclones and rising sea levels, the facilities created on the island – including a cyclone shelter – would help protect refugees, said Alam.

A still from footage shot in buildings constructed to house Rohingya refugees on Bhasan Char
A still from footage shot in buildings intended to house Rohingya refugees. Photograph: Video screengrab

“There is a cyclone shelter, and a pond so they can fish,” said the minister. “The only employment option for the Rohingya is fishing.”

Pointing to a picture of one of the houses constructed on the island, Alam said: “One journalist asked me why this looks like a jail, but all houses in Bangladesh come with a grid for safety, this is a regular pattern here.

“The prime minister, by sheltering the Rohingya, has created a very high moral ground and we would not do anything silly to dent that.”

Alam said that, if the first group of refugees were successfully settled, the approach could be replicated across the island, with more people relocated.

“I hope in the next two to three months we can start moving people,” he said.

Asked what would happen if people didn’t want to go, Alam replied: “We cannot force them to move, of course.”

Bhasan Char, 30km from the mainland, only emerged from the river over the past two decades. Concerns have been raised over how much free movement those on the island would have.

Over the past year, multiple NGOs have emphasised the difficulty and high risks involved in evacuating hundreds of thousands from the island in the event of natural disaster.

Journalists have not yet visited Bhasan Char. Alam said they had to bring over UN bodies first, such as the International Organization for Migration.

“We want them to see the place first and we will move them [the refugees] only after that. We are not rushing but we firmly believe this is the only solution,” he said.

Alam added that he was not worried about flooding. “A category 10 cyclone will not just impact them [the refugees moved to the island], it will impact 20% of our population … We are vulnerable anyway, so they won’t be any more vulnerable.”


Sarah Marsh

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘Like an open prison’: a million Rohingya refugees still in Bangladesh camps five years after crisis
Myanmar’s crackdown in 2017 forced a vast wave of refugees across the border into already crowded and unsafe camps – the result of decades of international political paralysis

Kaamil Ahmed

23, Aug, 2022 @10:05 AM

Article image
Unicef appeals for record $3.6bn as wars trigger desperate need
One in four children live in countries affected by conflict or disaster, says UN children’s agency, though billions required in assistance unlikely to be met

Rebecca Ratcliffe

30, Jan, 2018 @11:55 AM

Article image
Bangladesh begins moving Rohingya families to remote island
Operation to move 2,500 families begins despite safety concerns and lack of consent from refugees

Kaamil Ahmed and Redwan Ahmed

04, Dec, 2020 @5:12 AM

Article image
UK accused of ‘abandoning’ Rohingya with ‘catastrophic’ 40% aid cut
Children in overcrowded Cox’s Bazar settlement likely to suffer most from reduced humanitarian spending, say campaigners

Kaamil Ahmed

21, May, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Rohingya refugee crisis speaks to the worst acts of humanity
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar in the past year. It is vital we don’t forget them

Michael Sheen

22, Aug, 2018 @10:26 AM

Article image
UN not given access to Rohingya refugee camps after Cyclone Mocha
UNHCR says it’s awaiting permission from Myanmar government to distribute health supplies in Sittwe, where an estimated 90% of Rohingya homes have been destroyed

Aung Naing Soe and Kaamil Ahmed

19, May, 2023 @11:29 AM

Article image
Myanmar government 'bulldozing Rohingya mass grave to hide evidence'
Rights group says site of massacre in Rakhine state is being flattened on government orders after exposés of two other mass graves

Emanuel Stoakes

19, Feb, 2018 @2:10 PM

Article image
Bangladesh grants Rohingya refugee children access to education
Children aged 11-13 will be first to benefit as government eases long-standing restrictions in effort to avoid ‘lost generation’

Kaamil Ahmed

29, Jan, 2020 @11:23 AM

Article image
'Our men are leaving us': the Rohingya women facing life alone
Having fled persecution in Myanmar, a growing number of women are at risk of harassment and attack in Bangladesh after being deserted by their husbands

Helen Nianias in Cox's Bazar

28, Jun, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
At least six Rohingya refugees killed as floods hit camps in Bangladesh
Shelters swept away as activists say people stuck in Cox’s Bazar are highly vulnerable to the ‘rapidly changing climate’

Kaamil Ahmed

29, Jul, 2021 @5:00 AM