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Bangladesh approves controversial Rohingya island

Rohingya Muslim refugees walk through the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on November 27, 2017. Rohingya are still fleeing into Bangladesh even after an agreement was signed with Myanmar to repatriate hundreds of thousands of the Muslim minority displaced along the border, officials said November 27. The arrangement struck by the neighbours on Thursday raised the prospect of at least 700,000 Rohingya Muslims living in overcrowded camps in southeastern Bangladesh being returned to Myanmar. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES

Bangladesh approved a controversial $280 million project to transform a desolate island off its southern coast into a temporary camp for 100,000 Rohingya refugees on Tuesday, despite warnings the site is uninhabitable.

The announcement comes just days after Bangladesh signed an agreement to repatriate to Myanmar the Rohingya refugees languishing in overburdened camps along its border.

A government economic council chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave the greenlight to the planned redevelopment of Bhashan Char island, a project that has attracted fierce criticism since being first proposed in 2015.

Planning Secretary Ziaul Islam said it was hoped the island would be ready from May to accommodate some of the more than 620,000 Rohingya Muslims that have crossed the border in the past three months.

“Approximately one lakh (100,000) people will be shifted there for the time being. We hope the project work will be completed by 2018,” he told AFP.

“The navy has been given the task in an effort to expedite the (project) work.”

Apart from building shelters, low-lying areas of the island must be filled in and embankments erected around the entire perimeter to ensure it can resist tidal flooding, monsoon storms and seasonal cyclones.

The silty strip of land only emerged from the Bay of Bengal in 2006, and lies one hour’s boat journey from the nearest inhabited island.

Bangladesh, a low-lying riverine country at risk from rising sea levels, shelved plans last year to turn the island into a way station for refugees amid warnings it could be completely inundated by floods.

But the scheme was revived in late August as unprecedented numbers of new Rohingya arrivals poured into Bangladesh’s southernmost Cox’s Bazar district, placing enormous strain on limited resources and makeshift camps in the border region.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H Mahmood Ali in September appealed for international assistance to transport Rohingya to the island.

But leaders for the persecuted Muslim minority remain opposed to the idea and a UN agency official warned any attempt at a forced relocation would be “very complex and controversial”.

The navy has built two helipads and a small road on the island in recent months but concerns persist over its suitability for human habitation, with experts warning it could be swallowed by tides and rising seas.

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