As It Happens

Bangladesh is moving 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a cyclone-prone island made of silt

Anwar Arkani says his sisters are living in a refugee camps that fit the "biblical description of hell" — but he still doesn't want them moved to a nearby uninhabited island formed from silt.

Canadian Anwar Arkani fears for his sisters' lives despite government's vow the camp will be flood-protected

This February 2018 image shows the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal — soon to be home to 100,000 Rohingya refugees. (Reuters)

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Canadian Anwar Arkani says his sisters are living in refugee camps that fit the "biblical description of hell" — but he still doesn't want them moved to a nearby uninhabited island formed from silt.

Bangladesh has announced it will move forward with plans to relocate more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims to Bhasan Char starting on April 15.

Bhasan Char — whose name means "floating island" — emerged from silt deposits only about 20 years ago and is particularly vulnerable to cyclones and monsoon rains. 

"It's not an island formed by the sediment or volcanoes. No, it is some sort of sand. It could be washed away at any given time," Arkani, a Rohingya refugee in Kitchener, Ont., told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"It is an absolutely horrendous or shocking news to the refugees as well as people who care about these refugees. 100,000 lives is a lot of people."

Arkani came to Canada 20 years ago when he was a teenager and later formed the Rohingya Association of Canada. He has been a Canadian citizen since 2005.

His parents are dead, and his three adult sisters  — Foranshuna, Ayesha Begum and Noor Jahan — live in refugee camps in Bangladesh. 

He last saw them in November 2017 when he visited them at the camps in Cox's Bazar, which house more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees who fled state-sponsored violence in their home country of Myanmar.

"If anybody would like to get a sense of hell on this planet, I think that they should visit the Bangladeshi refugee camp and they will see," he said. 

"[My sisters] will not survive very long. But dying on land is much better than dying in the ocean."

Rohingya refugee children walk along the road at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Rohingya children walk along the road at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar in November. About 900,000 Rohingya refugees live across 36 different locations in the Cox’s Bazar area, according the UNHCR. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

The decision to move the refugees has drawn the ire of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, who say there's no guarantee the island — which has never been inhabited by anyone but transient fishermen — is safe. 

But the Bangladeshi government insisted the new location will be better protected from the rains than the ramshackle camps on the mainland. 

"Housing, power, communication, healthcare, storm surge protection, cyclone shelter centres and every other facility is there," State Minister for Disaster and Relief Management Md Enamur Rahman told the Dhaka Tribune.

Chinese construction company Sinohydro built a 13-km flood-defence embankment for the $280-million project.

HR Wallingford, a British engineering and environmental hydraulics consultant, advised the project on "coastal stabilization and flood protection measures," the company told Reuters in a statement.

A Rohingya Muslim woman cries as she holds her daughter after they were detained by border agents while crossing the India-Bangladesh border from in January. (Jayanta Dey/Reuters)

But it's not just the geography that has refugees and their advocates worried.

Arkani said people will be moved even farther away from their ancestral lands onto a remote island some 30 km from the mainland, and kept in housing units that are "nothing less than incarceration, like jail cells."

​Architectural plans show 120 plots of land with a total of 1,440 buildings, each housing 16 families. Each family will have a 3.6-metre by 1.2-metre room. Kitchens and bathrooms will be shared.

Footage obtained by the Guardian in November shows metal-roofed, concrete housing units with bars on the windows.

Rohingya refugee children are silhouetted as they play with jumping ropes at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar. Anwar Arkani says that while the camps are hellish, people have built lives there and don't want to be moved even father away from their homeland. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters)

Arkani said he fears people will lose their access to aid groups and humanitarian workers. 

"Nobody can go out, nobody can go in without the permission of the security forces that [Bangladesh] will be putting there," he said.

"And so imagine what sort of crimes, what sort of abuse would take place there."

The government plans to move the first 23,000 families to Bhashan Char by April 15.

"They just survived a genocide, and a lot of them are survivors of brutal killing and rape ... and you are creating additional trauma," Arkani said. "I don't think this is in any way acceptable at all."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Anwar Arkani produced by Sarah Jackson.