Project Bhashan Char: Assessing Potentiality For ‘Temporary Alternative’ – OpEd


Almost 18,445 Rohingya refugees have started a new life in Bhashan Char since the relocation of the refugees started in December last year. While the Rohingya forcibly displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs) are spending scary days in the congested Cox’s Bazar camps, the Rohingyas in Bhashan Char are weaving new dreams in Bhashan char. However, it seems that from the onset, distorted news and conspiracy was inclined with the relocation process. The most common ground of opposing the relocation process is that the place is “unsafe” and the process is not “planned”. Against such backdrops, it is really important to assess the potentiality of Bhashan Char as a potential temporary alternative for the forcibly displaced Rohingya refugees.

Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in an article published in on June 7, 2021 opined that the return of Rohingya refugees to Bhashan char is “unplanned” and “risky”. HRW in a report released recently termed Bhashan char in Noakhali as “An Island Jail in the Middle of the Sea”. But the real picture is that the place is ‘planned’ and ‘safer’ than the clumsy camps in Cox’s Bazar.

After concluding the four-day visit to Bangladesh on June 2, 2021, in a press release, the UNHCR Assistant High Commissioners for Protection and for Operations- Gillian Triggs and Raouf Mazou clearly asserted that Bhashan Char is much better than the Cox’s Bazar camps which “could provide as an alternative temporary location for some Rohingya refugees while in Bangladesh”. The Ashrayan-3 Project (the official name of Bhashan Char project) looks like a “planned modern township” with rows of high-rise white buildings with red roofs. Bhashan Char, equipped with electricity, water, communal kitchens and playgrounds, appears to be well suited for the Rohingya. Any person arriving on the island in the Bay of Bengal will be astonished seeing the buildings equipped with electricity and solar panels, as well as biogas plants and mobile networks in operation.

Another concern has been put forth by some rightist organizations is how far the island would be “stable and safe” from natural disasters. For this, one example is enough that five thousand people took shelter there during cyclone Bulbul. During the recent Cyclone Amphan and Yaas, Bhashan Char was mostly unharmed with zero death tolls.  The Bangladesh Navy organized the island with three layers of protection from the natural disasters. The three-tier protection plan for Bhashan char is- a) water break b) mangrove forest and c) embankment. In the first layer, the boundary of Bhashan Char is protected by water break to siege the flow of tide and proper embankment made with concrete. Secondly, mangrove forest for protecting the area likewise Sundarbans in the South-Western region of Bangladesh. Lastly, there are 14-feet high main embankments in case flood water enters during cyclones. Besides, the engineering intervention of Bhashan Char was initiated keeping in mind 176 years of disaster data in this region. 

The Bangladesh government is dissatisfied with the continued negative publicity about Bhashan char by some international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media. The move by Bangladesh to relocate a number of Rohingya refugees from the crowded camp in Cox’s Bazar to Bhashan char is commendable. The only solution to the Rohingya problem is the speedy, safe and permanent return of displaced Rohingya refugees from Rakhine. The international community and all other countries should take note of the humanitarian burden that Bangladesh is carrying on-more than one million Rohingya Muslims. The Bangladesh government has never seen the relocation of Rohingyas in Bhashan char as a permanent solution, but rather a far-reaching step until the repatriation process begins. There can be no better way than to move some people to Bhashan char at this moment.

WION, an international News Channel published a ground video report premiered on January 21 this year that clearly explains why Bhashan Char is an ideal place for the “temporary resettlement” of the Rohingya FDMNs. The Indian research think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) publishes a research report on Bhashan char which mentions the benefits of relocation to Bhashan char. The UN Human Rights Commission’s 2020 Joint Response Plan (JRP) appears to support the government’s plans regarding the relocation.

Certainly, the initiative of the Bangladesh government for the ‘security and welfare’ of the Refugees can be counted as an extraordinary decision for the Rohingya refugees. However, instead of receiving appreciation, Bangladesh has been facing propagated criticisms by a portion of humanitarian groups and NGOs to halt the relocation programs. Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen said that the NGOs do not want to go to Bhashan char for their personal convenience and comfort. Bangladesh is fulfilling its responsibility and everyone, including those NGOs, should look at Myanmar and create an environment for the return of Rohingyas there. 

While the delegates from the EU, the OIC and the UN expressed high satisfaction after a series of visits of the facilities and living conditions of the Rohingya refugees in the Bhashan Char, a part of international NGOs is obsessed with propagating criticism, not the solution- solely concentrating on the negative aspects of Bhashan Char which is misleading, intentional and interest motivated. The campaign launched by humanitarian groups like HRW against Bhashan Char Program may be counted as an act of misleading the focus of global attention from the Rohingya repatriation to pressurizing Bangladesh on ‘local integration’.

Voluntary repatriation is the only viable solution for most of the refugee crises around the world. Since World War II, around 70% of the world’s refugees found a durable solution by returning home. As the repatriation is now far away for the time being, the temporary relocation of some 100,000 Rohingya Muslims in the “planned” and “safer” Bhashan Char from the Cox’s Bazar is a viable decision in which international community and NGOs should cooperate in a coordinated way with the Bangladesh government.

*Shaikh Abdur Rahman, Independent Researcher, MSS and BSS (Hons.), Department of International Relations University of Rajshahi


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