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These Rohingya Refugees Are Working To Prepare Safer Shelters Before Monsoon Season

Originally published on July 12, 2018 6:59 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

An effort is underway in Bangladesh to make a sprawling Rohingya refugee camp safer, and the Rohingya are part of the solution. They're being paid $5 a day to help flatten the hills near the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, a project to protect against flooding during the monsoon season. Nearly a million Rohingya sought refuge last year in this area after fleeing attacks by Myanmar's security forces. To talk about this cash-for-work program, we're joined by Fiona MacGregor. She's spokesperson for the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration at Cox's Bazar. That's the district in Bangladesh that's home now to many of these refugees. Welcome.

FIONA MACGREGOR: Hello. Hello.

CHANG: So, Fiona, can you just describe first this area around the camp? What are the living conditions for the Rohingya like there?

MACGREGOR: The living conditions at the moment are extremely difficult. This was a very hilly area. Those hills were covered in vegetation, but people were so desperate to find places to live that that was all cleared. So now we have hundreds of thousands of people, almost a million refugees living on bare slopes, sandy slopes that are incredibly prone to landslides and flooding. It's very dangerous.

CHANG: So if refugees were to stay exactly where they are, flooding will definitely inundate this entire area.

MACGREGOR: There's three risks actually in this area. One is cyclones. One is flooding, and one is landslides. Landslides is what we are particularly concerned about at the moment - that is sandy slopes prone to landslides, shelters almost one on top of each other, you know? So the risk if those come crashing down is terrible. That's why we're trying to move people as quickly as possible.

CHANG: I'm just trying to picture. How are you doing that?

MACGREGOR: Well, the land is so steep that we can't go in with machines initially, so we literally have thousands of workers with pickaxes...

CHANG: Wow.

MACGREGOR: ...Flattening the soil. Yeah, it was spectacular. You know, this is very kind of red-brown earth here, and you see that up against the green monsoon skies. You can actually see in place the pillars which mark where the top of the hills were and how far down people have managed to dig. After that, of course there's - the heavy machinery goes in and can really flatten things and even things out.

CHANG: So you've mentioned the threat of cyclones. Monsoon season is already underway. Is enough happening quickly enough?

MACGREGOR: We're doing as much as we possibly can. I mean, we have to be realistic here. We have almost a million refugees in an area that - topographically, it's just not suitable for what is the world's largest refugee settlement. So IOM along with partner agencies is working as hard as we can to support the Bangladesh authorities, you know, to keep people as safe as possible. But it is a very, very difficult situation for everybody.

CHANG: Is this paid work program providing some boost to the Rohingya? I mean, beyond just shoring up the camp, making living conditions safer, has it been something to keep people's minds on?

MACGREGOR: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that - you have a population here who have escaped terrible violence in Myanmar. They've come here. They had nothing. And, you know, the opportunity to take part in something that is making their environment safer for themselves and for their families and for their community is something that I really - refugees I've spoken to have talked about how they're taking pride in that.

CHANG: Fiona MacGregor is spokesperson for the U.N.'s International Organization for Migration at Cox's Bazar. Thank you.

MACGREGOR: Thank you, Ailsa. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.