Mon, Jun 15, 2015 - Page 4 News List

Bangladesh island solution draws alarm

AFP, HATIYA, Bangladesh

The remote island of Thengar Char disappears completely under about 1m of water at high tide and has no roads or flood defenses, but that has not stopped the Bangladeshi government from proposing to relocate thousands of Rohingya refugees living in camps in the southeastern district of Cox’s Bazar — which borders Myanmar — to its marshy shores.

Bangladesh said last month it was looking to move about 32,000 registered refugees, in part because they were hampering tourism in the coastal resort district — home to the world’s longest unbroken beach.

The proposal has been met with alarm from leaders of the Rohingya, who began arriving more than two decades ago after fleeing persecution in Myanmar, and whose desperate search for a secure homeland has been thrown into the spotlight by a regional smuggling crisis.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has been helping them since 1992, said a move would be “logistically challenging” — an assessment confirmed by a recent visit to the area by reporters.

Police on the neighboring island of Hatiya prevented the boat reporters were traveling on from going to Thengar Char, saying they could not guarantee its safety.

However, accounts from local people and a forest department official who oversaw the 2011 planting of mangroves on Thengar Char gave an indication of the challenges.

“At high tide the entire island is under three to four feet [0.9m to 1.2m] of water,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It is impossible to live there,” he said, comparing the plan to “compelling a guest to sit on a spiked chair after inviting him to your home.”

Low-lying Thengar Char, about 30km east of Hatiya Island, only emerged from the sea about eight years ago and does not appear on Google Maps.

The 4,050 hectare island is administered from Hatiya, which has a population of 600,000, but local boat operators told reporters they rarely go there.

Such a journey would in any case be impossible during the monsoon months of June to September, when the seas are perilous — and the island would be completely cut off.

The island, about two hours away from the mainland by speedboat, is in an area frequently hit by typhoons, which have killed thousands of people in Hatiya and Bangladesh’s southern coast.

Hatiya’s top government official A.H.M. Moyeenuddin said the island had been chosen by a team of government surveyors dispatched to the area on the orders of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

He admitted that relocating thousands of people to the island would be challenging, but said the construction of typhoon shelters, a barrage and a hospital would be enough to “make the place liveable.”

Hatiya Police chief Nurul Huda declared it an “ideal place for Rohingya relocation” — even though it is “isolated and frequented by pirates.”

“All we need is a police station to maintain law and order,” he told reporters.

However, residents of Hatiya remain unconvinced by the proposal.

“We are already tired of Bengali pirates and river erosion. We don’t want our peace disrupted any further,” said Abdul Halim, who took part in a recent protest by scores of islanders.

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