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Creating a Floating Island Home for the Rohingya

Written by Simi Khan

March 25, 2019

Bangladesh is roughly the same size as New York, but has more than eight times the population. What’s more, one in four of its citizens live below the poverty line. This is not necessarily a country that you would expect to open its borders and welcome 1.1 million Rohingya refugees.


By way of background, the Rohingya is a Muslim ethnic group, which has experienced persecution in Buddhist Myanmar since the late 1970s. Stateless and unprotected, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since October 2017 on account of continuing violence.  Since then, over 700,000 Rohingya refugees have arrived in Bangladesh. Altogether there are now more than 1.1 million refugees in the country

The mass exodus from Myanmar to Bangladesh has turned Cox’s Bazar into one of the largest refugee settlements. As a result, there has been increasing strain on both the Rohingya and local population. Food scarcity, trafficking, violence, diseases, and unhygienic living conditions have become normal. In fact, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has described the situation as “the most urgent refugee emergency in the world.”


Given this challenging state of affairs, in 2015 the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, announced that the country would relocate over 100,000 refugees to an island named Bhasan Char. She deemed it a ‘temporary solution’ to ease congestion in the camps. Since then, the country has implemented plans to build large-scale infrastructure projects with the capacity to house up to 1 million people. These will include concrete blocks for housing, roads, bricked buildings with metal roofs and solar panels.


However, I think that this plan may well encounter significant obstacles including public opposition and climate change.

First of all, there are genuine concerns about living conditions on the island and its susceptibility to erosion. Indeed Mabrur Ahmed, co-director of Restless Beings said: “the idea to shift [refugees] to an island which has changed shape six times in the last fifteen years is more of an experiment than an offer to help.”

In addition, Bhasan Char is extremely isolated, located 30km away from any mainland. Consequently refugees could be unwilling to endure the three-hour boat ride to the island with no certainty of leaving. The PM’s Advisor stated that refugees would only be able to leave if they wanted to go back to Myanmar or were selected for asylum by another country. With no ID cards or passports, the Rohingya are stuck in limbo. What’s more, there are concerns that there would be limited opportunities for the Rohingya refugees to earn a living. This situation could create a worrying dependency on supplies.

Moreover climate change is a particularly pressing issue for Bangladesh, which would affect the relocation. According to National Geographic, Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable nations to the impact of climate change. By 2100, sea levels are estimated to rise from 0.4 to 1.5 metres.

Ways Forward

However, the Bangladeshi Government has taken these issues into consideration. For example, refugees can graze livestock and fish. In addition, supplies will be brought in monthly. The Director-General, Kabir Bin Anwar has also stated that there will be salt tolerant paddies, which would reduce the issue of salinity.

I believe that these plans should be developed further to ensure their success.

Ultimately, the Rohingya crisis is a global issue. It should be managed accordingly to make a difference.

Simi Khan is a former LIDC intern and is studying for a BA Development Studies at SOAS, one of LIDC’s core member institutions. She has previous experience volunteering in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. 

Photo: Reuters/AFP

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