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Rohingya island camp plans spark worry on nearby shores

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. 

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.

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