Dhaka, Bangladesh – Its name translates to “floating island”, and the low-slung terrain is thought to be home to 100,000 desperate war refugees.
Munazar Islam, a refugee, initially thought it would be his. He and his family fled Myanmar in 2017 after the military launched a campaign of murder and rape that the United Nations called ethnic cleansing. After years of living in a refugee camp prone to fire and floods, he accepted an invitation from the government of neighboring Bangladesh to visit Bhasan Char Island.
Mr. Islam’s relief was short-lived. Jobs on the island were non-existent. Police officers controlled the movements of refugees and sometimes prevented residents from playing outside with neighbors, or with children. The island was vulnerable to floods and cyclones and, until relatively recently, occasionally disappeared underwater.
So, in August, Mr. Islam paid human traffickers about $400 to take his family elsewhere.
“When I got the chance, I paid and left,” said Mr Islam, who asked that his location not be disclosed because it is illegal to leave Bhasan Char. “I used to die on that island every day, and I didn’t want to be stuck there.”
Bangladesh is struggling to find a long-term solution for the more than one million members of the largely Muslim Rohingya minority group who fled persecution in Myanmar.
The first plan – sticking them on an island – seems hard to pull off. An increasing number of migrants are fleeing Bhasan Char, drowning in the waters of the Bay of Bengal as well as risking prosecution if caught by the authorities. For human rights groups, the exodus stands as testament to the miserable conditions on the island.
“Thousands of Rohingya refugees are confined to the island and not allowed to leave,” said Jo Win of the human rights organization Fortify Rights. “They lack freedom of movement, access to quality health care and livelihoods.”
The Bangladesh government, which hopes to eventually deport the Rohingya back to Myanmar, said the refugees would be happier once their relatives arrived and the local economy developed.
“There needs to be a community to develop, and more people to come to the island,” said Shah Rezwan Hayat, the country’s Refugees, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner. “Once more people start coming to the island, existing people will no longer need to leave the island to visit their relatives.”
“We are working to develop the livelihood of the island,” he said. “But restrictions on their movement will continue. They will not be allowed to leave the camp. And they are served food every day, so it is not the responsibility of Bangladesh to arrange jobs for them to earn money.”
The Bangladeshi government hopes that Bhasan will help ease the worsening situation for the four refugees elsewhere. According to the United Nations, about 890,000 Rohingya currently live in camps in a coastal area in eastern Bangladesh called Cox’s Bazar.
Bhasan is one of four unstable islands formed largely of silt from the Meghna River, which empties into the bay. The island became permanent only in recent years, when the surrounding area was removed to build an earthen embankment around the island.
However, the island may not be as permanent as it may appear. Environmental experts say the existence of Bhasan Char is under threat from climate change, which has worsened storms and raised sea levels. Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that refugees and humanitarian activists alike fear inadequate storm and flood protection could put those living on the island at serious risk.
Nevertheless, the Bangladesh government has proceeded to settle Rohingya refugees there. They have built housing for more than 100,000 people, including a series of red-roofed dormitories that check out more than two square miles of the western side of the island.
The number of people trying to escape the island has become a growing problem. According to police, about 700 have tried to escape, sometimes paying $150 per person to find rides on Ricky boats. Police have arrested at least 200 people who tried to leave.
Police cite security concerns. In August, a boat carrying 42 people capsized, killing 14 and leaving 13 missing.
“When we capture them, we send them back to the island,” said Abul Kalam Azad, a police officer from the port city of Chattogram on Bangladesh’s southeast coast. “They say they are mostly upset with no jobs in Bhasan Char. They are eager to work and earn money.”
Some just want to see their families again.
Last year, Jannat Ara left her cottage in Cox’s Bazar for a perilous sea voyage to land a job in Malaysia that would provide food for eight members of her family. His boat was intercepted by the Bangladesh Navy. She was sent to Bhasan Char, where she lived with three other women.
Desperate to leave alone, in May he snatched his first chance of escape. She said her parents paid about $600 for a trip to Cox’s Bazar. He traveled for hours in the dark before coming back to the camp.
“Only Allah knows how I stayed there for a year,” said Ms. Ara. “It is a prison with red-roofed buildings and is surrounded by sea on all sides. I used to call my parents and cry everyday.”
Human rights groups have questioned whether refugees in Bhasan Char have adequate access to food, water, schooling and health care. In an emergency, he says, the island also lacks the capacity to evacuate residents.
“The fear is always there,” said Dil Mohamed, a Rohingya refugee who arrived on the island in December. “We are surrounded by the sea.”
But the biggest concern, Mr. Mohamed said, is his children’s education.
“When we were in Cox’s Bazar my eldest son used to go to community school, but he is going to forget what he learned, as he has no option but to study in Bhasan Char,” he said.
There have been protests against Bangladeshi authorities by refugees for fear of being trapped on the vulnerable island without any means of exit. The protests began in May, when UN human rights investigators visited. They continued after the boat incident in August, with protesters criticizing the Bangladesh government and urging the United Nations to deport Cox’s Bazar.
Mr Islam, a Rohingya refugee who fled in August, was one of the protesters. But he was already thinking about exiting.
He lost three cousins during an assassination by the Myanmar military in Rakhine province in 2017. After reaching Cox’s Bazar, he and his family built a hill hut out of sticks and plastic tarpaulins and shared it with another family of three.
During hot summer nights, Mr. Islam said, he and the other man slept outside so that their children and wives could sleep comfortably inside.
The promise of an apartment on Bhasan Char appealed. In January, while other families were forced to move there, they volunteered. He had some blankets and two bags of clothes.
He had come to regret the decision. When they arrived at Cox’s Bazar back in August, they looked at it with new eyes.
“I felt,” he said, “as if I was walking into my house.”