Bangladesh says Bhasan Char, a shifting silt island threatened by cyclones and disappearing land, could be a safe home for up to 100,000 Rohingya refugees. Bangladeshis who live with the same dangers nearby aren’t so certain.
Eight years ago, severe floods forced Mohammad Robiul Hossain from his home on the north side of Hatiya, an island that sits near Bhasan Char and other islands on the northern edge of the Bay of Bengal.
“Our house, our land – all have gone with the flood,” Hossain said.
His family’s new home is a fishing settlement on Hatiya’s less exposed eastern shore – about 20 kilometres southwest of Bhasan Char, which locals here also call Thengar Char. But frequent cyclones, storm surges, and coastal erosion remain a constant danger.
“Nobody is safe here,” he said. “And the Rohingya will be completely unsafe in Thengar Char.”
Starting in August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya were driven from Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh in a military purge. The influx swelled Bangladesh’s refugee population to nearly one million people, and accelerated dormant plans to move Rohingya off the mainland.
Bangladeshi officials insist the island is safe, and that the move is necessary to “decongest” the crowded mainland camps. Critics say living on the remote island would leave Rohingya isolated from aid and more exposed to disaster risks.
“Nobody is safe here. And the Rohingya will be completely unsafe.”
But there’s also deep concern among Bangladeshis, like Hossain, who live on nearby islands. In January this year, The New Humanitarian travelled to Bhasan Char to track the rapid construction underway, and to speak to residents on the other islands.
Some said they feared their own fishing livelihoods would be threatened if they are suddenly forced to compete for resources with incoming refugees.
Others repeated stereotypes about Rohingya in Bangladesh – that the refugees are “drug dealers” or “terrorists”.
People like Hossain were more sympathetic. “We have few things, but they have nothing,” he said. “They are welcome.”
But many echoed a common concern about Bhasan Char, which for now remains uninhabited.
“This is not a liveable place,” said Nizamudin, a fisherman from Sandwip, an island less than 10 kilometres northeast of Bhasan Char.
A shifting island landscape
Perched near where Bangladesh’s Meghna River meets the ocean, the very shape of islands like Bhasan Char, Sandwip, and Hatiya is constantly changing – gaining ground through sedimentation from upstream rivers, or losing it through erosion and sea-level rise.
“Bangladesh sits at the feet of the greatest mountains of the Himalaya, and it’s a flat, plain land of delta formation – geologically very young,” said Atiq Rahman, a scientist who heads the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, a Dhaka-based environmental think tank. “If the European rivers are pretty stable, our rivers continuously move. They form and lose land every moment.”
For example, over the course of 20 years Hatiya lost nearly 6,500 hectares of coastline, in part through erosion, while gaining nearly 10,000 hectares elsewhere, according to a 2015 study analysing satellite imagery and data. Separate research has tracked similar fluctuations on Sandwip.
Bhasan Char is even more volatile, having only emerged within the last two decades. It is also frequently flooded, especially during the monsoon season, which typically lasts from June through October. An analysis of satellite imagery and data published by the European Space Agency showed the island’s total land area fluctuated between about 40 and 76 square kilometres over the last five years.
In January, when TNH reached Bhasan Char by boat, part of the island was a vast construction site: dozens of labourers toiled away amid piles of concrete sheeting, track loaders, excavators, watchtowers, and warehouses – surrounded by a long embankment made of sandbags. Officials on the island refused to allow TNH to enter the worksite.
The UN’s special rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, also visited the site in January, snapping photos of barracks-style housing and emergency shelters under construction.
“There are a number of things that remain unknown to me even following my visit, chief among them being whether the island is truly habitable,” she later reported.
There are now about 1,400 barracks buildings and 120 cyclone shelters on Bhasan Char, according to a recent analysis by UNOSAT, a UN humanitarian mapping and research programme. Bangladeshi officials say the island has been secured with storm shelters and a flood embankment surrounding the settlement.
These defences were put to an early test this month when Cyclone Bulbul cut through the Bay of Bengal. The eye of the storm passed about 70 kilometres northwest of Bhasan Char, churning up a 1.8-metre storm surge. The waves likely weren’t high enough to breach the 2.47-metre flood embankment, according to a preliminary UNOSAT analysis: satellite imagery found no signs of major damage or floods.
But the storm carried relatively low wind speeds and rainfall. “The full effectiveness of the mitigation measures against extreme events could not be confirmed,” the analysis concluded.
For now, Bangladesh’s island plans are on hold while the UN prepares an assessment team to gauge Bhasan Char’s “basic safety and sustainability”.
Bangladesh officials say any eventual move will be voluntary, though rights groups say Rohingya aren’t being properly consulted. Opinion surveys suggest a vast majority of Rohingya would refuse to go, though a few are now reconsidering their options.
It’s unclear whether UN agencies or the dozens of aid groups operating in the mainland camps will participate if Bangladesh’s plans proceed.
Razia Sultana, a Rohingya lawyer and founder of the Rohingya Women Welfare Society based in nearby Chittagong, said Bhasan Char would leave refugees even more vulnerable.
“The relocation is not a proper solution,” she said. “It will create new problems, as it prevents self-sufficiency and worsens dependency.”
At Bangla Bazar, a fish market on Sandwip’s southwest coast across from Bhasan Char, talk of Rohingya moving to the area met with mixed emotions.
“They will inevitably catch fish as we do,” said fisherman Monar Dan. “What will be left for us?”
But Saliful Islam, an elderly man wearing a white prayer cap, was more open to the idea of having the Rohingya as neighbours.
“They deserve a safe place to live,” he said. “The real issue is that Thengar Char is unsafe. How will they survive?”