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Rohingya - Bhashan Char Resettlement

Bangladesh will relocate over 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a remote islet by mid-April 2019, a government minister confirmed on 03 March 2019, but there were fears the chosen site is less than ideal. “Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina last week instructed completion of the relocation of 23,000 Rohingya families to Bhashan Char by April 15,” local media quoted Md Enamur Rahman, state minister for disaster and relief management, saying after meeting with Earl Robert Miller, the US ambassador to Bangladesh. To make the islet liveable, all facilities — including housing, power, communication, healthcare, storm surge protection, and cyclone shelter centers — had been provided, Rahman added. International groups and rights bodies including the UN, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, however, repeatedly warned the move could be risky and urged Bangladesh to go through the project with Rohingya refugees on a voluntary basis and with due clarification.

Until the Rohingya resettlement project began, the islet was apparently uninhabited, mostly used for cattle grazing and as a hub for pirates. The islet emerged from the Bay of Bengal in 2006 and is about 30 kilometres from the mainland, and 52 km from the southern Noakhali district. In 2013, the area was declared a forest reserve. Motorboats are the only mode of travel to the island. Around 1,350 acres of land — 432 acres occupied and 918 acres vacant — were proposed for the Rohingya rehabilitation project.

The island in the Bay of Bengal developed to house tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees likely won’t be opened this year, Bangladeshi officials acknowledged 12 December 2018 after earlier announcing that the prime minister would inaugurate the controversial facility in October. Bangladeshi officials raced during the year to finish building a residential complex on Bhashan Char island to ease congestion in Cox’s Bazar district, where most of the more than 700,000 Rohingya fled following a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2017.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told reporters in February 2018 that the plan to house the refugees on the flood-prone island would be temporary. Her government budgeted U.S. $276 million in the housing complex, a two-year construction project built under supervision of the Bangladeshi Navy. Chinese construction company Sinohydro was involved in constructing a 13-km (8-mile) embankment designed to protect the island from flooding and HR Wallingford, a British engineering consultancy firm, had been involved on the project’s “coastal stabilization” measures.

The embankment, protected by steel sheet, would allow the island to withstand flooding and cyclones, an official involved in the Bhashan Char project told BenarNews on condition of anonymity. “The embankment will gradually be made 21-foot high,” he said, adding that some people had been farming freshwater fish and raising cattle inside the island to prepare for the possible arrival of refugees.

The official said there would be adequate water pumps to supply drinking water to the refugees on Bhashan Char, where workers had finished constructing two helipads. Two big ships and 20 high-speed boats would also be stationed on the island to help transport goods and refugees, he said. Earlier, human rights groups opposed the plan to bring Rohingya to the island and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) emphasized that the relocation plan must be “based on and implemented through voluntary and informed decisions.”

The Bangladesh government has appealed for international support to move the Rohingya to Bhashan Char, also known as Thengar Char, a barren Bangladeshi silt island that floods every year. Bhashan Char is located in Hatiya Upazila, in the estuary of the Meghna river. Bangladesh authorities first proposed settling Rohingya refugees there in 2015. But the plan was apparently shelved in 2016 after reports that the silt island, which emerged from the sea only in 2006, was uninhabitable due to regular tidal flooding. By late 2017 the Bangladesh government was speeding work at Bhashan Char with a view to building a 10,000-acre facility that can house hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.

The island, used sporadically by fishermen and farmers seeking to graze their animals, was susceptible to tidal flooding once or twice a year. The Bangladesh Navy, involved in developing the island, deterred pirates who had operated in the seas around Bhasan Char. The Navy set up two helipads and by September 2017 was building roads and a shed for their use. It spans 115 square miles or 300 Sq Km, or 30,000 hectares. It is under water from June to September annually because of the monsoon, and it has no flood fences. Mangrove trees have been planted on about a third of the island as part of an ongoing development plan. The trees are designed to shore up the land, to make it more inhabitable.

The popular revolutionary peasant leader from South Asia Abdul Hamid Khan (1880-1976) was known as "Moulana Bhashani". Maulana came from his religious standing, and folk tale suggests that the name “Bhashani” came from the name of the place called Bhashan char. He had settled on this silted islet after being "externed from Bengal on the pretext of preserving peace in the Province" as he was organizing peasant movements in the early 1920. Other accounts relate that Bhashani refers to Bhashan Char in Assam, India, where he lived before the partition. The word "char" to means "island" in Bangla, the local language.

Yet another account relates that "Bhashan was a river island in Brahmaputra River Valley, literally meant the place overflowed by the mighty flood making people destitute. Abdul Hamid Khan as a young peasant leader led the destitute to settle in Bhashan Char. That is how he earned his famous title, ‘Bhashani’ by settling the unsettled and the landless."

The Meghna Estuary system is a uniquely dynamic estuarine and coastal system. The sediment discharge from the lower Meghna River is the highest among all river systems in the world, and the water discharge is the third highest. The changes in tidal flow direction, channel topography, the occurrence of new channels, accretion of new lands and abandonment of old ones are the unique features that exists in the Meghna estuary. The Meghna Estuary Study from the year 2000 concluded that the accretion rate has increased to 18.8 sq. km per year. Bhashan char seems to be accrediting land on the northern part but eroding on the South.

In February 2017 the district administration's report stated "Thangar is a barren island in the Meghna estuary near Noakhali Island Upazila. The area of this island is 10 thousand acres during high tide and 15,000 acres of the time of recession, the committee constituted by the district administration mentioned. Forestry started officially since 2010-11. The char is now used as a cow-buffalo pasture. There is no scope to travel without engine powered boat. The island's distance from Hatiya is approximately 20 kilometers. It takes three to three and a half hours for an engine-driven boat to go from Hatiya."

The forest department's ranking officer, Jamal Uddin, said Thangarchar has no source of drinking water. With continuous tidal drift of the island, the elevation of the island is still not stable, and the height of the water is equal to the level of mud and the cause of various natural disasters. This island is still not suitable for people living in the Meghna estuarine area. If there is an accessory infrastructure, there will be no problem in settling the habitat.

The name "Bhashan char" is ambiguous. Faridpur district (zila) was established in 1815, roughly in the middle of what is now Bangladesh. The area now constituting Faridpur zila was formerly sadar subdivision of the then Faridpur district. The zila consists of 9 upazilas, 79 unions, 1022 populated mauzas, 1899 villages, 4 paurashavas, 36 wards and 100 mahallas. The upazilas are Alfadanga, Bhanga, Boalmari, Char Bhadrasan, Faridpur Sadar, Madhukhali, Nagarkanda, Sadarpur and Saltha. It includes a Bhashan Char union, part of the Sadarpur upazila.

Often termed as the world's longest beach, Cox's Bazar has yet to become a major tourist destination. The name Cox's Bazar originated from the name of a British East India Company officer, Captain Hiram Cox who was appointed as the Superintendent of Palonki (today's Cox's Bazar) beginning afterwards Warren Hastings became the Governor of Bengal afterward the British East India Company Act in 1773. Captain Hiram Cox was appointed British Resident at Rangoon in 1796. On his arrival at that port he experienced the most disrespectful neglect. He proceeded to the court, where, after being wheedled out of all his presents, he was treated with marked indignity.

The Burmese had pushed their conquests to the north and east, from about the time of the rise of the British rule in India. The State of Aracan, stretching southwards from nearly the top of the Bay of Bengal down the coast, and bordering on the British province of Chittagong, had been subjugated by them.

The Burmese conquerors were cruel. Emigrations took place to the British territories, to the number of thousands, in 1797 and 1798. There was no other instance of immigration on a large scale into British territory in India. They were at first sought to be kept out; a large body refused to return, saying that they would rather be slaughtered at once than return. Not less than 10,000 "rushed to the frontier" towards the end of 1798, and the number of immigrants went on increasing, till more than two-thirds of the population left Aracan; the capital being nearly depopulated, while the road was "strewed with the bodies" of the old, and of women with infants at the breast, and hundreds found no subsistence but on leaves and reptiles. The British Government determined to settle them upon some large tracts of waste land in Chittagong, and employed Captain Hiram Cox, who had been on a mission to Ava, for the purpose.

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