BHASHAN CHAR (Bangladesh) • Bangladesh is racing to turn an uninhabited and muddy Bay of Bengal island into home for 100,000 Rohingya Muslims who have fled a military crackdown in Myanmar, amid conflicting signals from top Bangladeshi officials about whether the refugees would end up being stranded there.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said on Monday that putting Rohingya on the low-lying island would be a "temporary arrangement" to ease congestion at the camps in Cox's Bazar, refuge for nearly 700,000 who have crossed from the north of Myanmar's Rakhine state since the end of August last year.
However, one of her advisers said that, once there, they would only be able to leave the island if they wanted to go back to Myanmar or were selected for asylum by a third country.
"It's not a concentration camp, but there may be some restrictions. We are not giving them a Bangladeshi passport or ID card," said adviser H.T. Imam. He said the question of selecting Rohingya in Cox's Bazar to move to the island was not finalised, but it could be decided by lottery or on a volunteer basis.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement: "We would emphasise that any relocation plan involving refugees would need to be based on and implemented through voluntary and informed decisions."
British and Chinese engineers are helping prepare the island to receive refugees before the onset of monsoon rains, which could start as early as late April.
Humanitarian agencies criticised the plan to take Rohingya to the island when it was first proposed in 2015. Aid workers say they remain seriously concerned that the silt island is vulnerable to frequent cyclones and cannot sustain livelihoods for thousands of people.
But work on the project has accelerated in recent months, according to architectural plans and two letters from the Bangladeshi navy to local government officials and contractors seen by Reuters.
A year ago, when Reuters journalists visited Bhashan Char - whose name means "floating island" - there were no roads, buildings or people.
Returning on Feb 14, they found hundreds of labourers carrying bricks and sand from ships on its muddy north-west shore. Satellite images now show roads and what appears to be a helipad.
Floating Island, which emerged from the silt only about 20 years ago, is about 30km from the mainland. Flat and shape-shifting, it regularly floods during June-September. Pirates roam the nearby waters to kidnap fishermen for ransom, residents of nearby islands say.
The plans show metal-roofed, brick buildings raised on pylons and fitted with solar panels. There will be 1,440 blocks, each housing 16 families.
Chinese construction company Sinohydro - better known for building China's Three Gorges Dam - has begun work on a 13km flood-defence embankment for the US$280 million (S$370 million) project.
A Sinohydro engineer said the company had "confidentiality agreements" and that questions about construction on the island should be referred to the Bangladeshi government.
HR Wallingford, a British engineering and environmental hydraulics consultancy, is advising the project on "coastal stabilisation and flood protection measures", the company said in a statement earlier this month.
"The coastal infrastructure design is expected to include a flood defence embankment, protecting the development area to international standards, set back from the shoreline," it said.
The company referred further inquiries to the Bangladesh Navy.
Residents of nearby Sandwip island, which is larger and less remote, say monsoon storms regularly kill people, destroy homes and cut contact with the mainland.
However, a senior member of the Prime Minister's staff, Director General Kabir Anwar, said the government was building cyclone shelters on the island, adding that there were salt-tolerant paddies, and people living there could fish or graze cows and buffalo.
Describing the island, Ms Hasina told a news conference in Dhaka that "from a natural point of view it is very nice" and said although the initial plan was to put 100,000 people there, it had room for as many as 1 million.