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One Of The Greatest Threats Facing Rohingya Muslim Refugees Is The Land Itself


It has been a year since massive numbers of Rohingya Muslims began leaving Myanmar. Nearly 700,000 Rohingya fled attacks by Myanmar soldiers and pro-government militias in what the U.S. and the U.N. have labeled a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Those refugees are now living in massive camps on the Bangladesh side of the border. NPR's Jason Beaubien recently returned from those camps, where he says conditions for the Rohingya remain difficult.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: One of the greatest threats facing the Rohingya refugees is the land itself. They've built makeshift shelters on steep, sandy hillsides. They've also stripped away almost all of the vegetation, making the cliffs prone to collapse.

YASSIN: You know, it is very dangerous.

BEAUBIEN: My translator Yassin and I are trying to scramble up an expanse of loose sand where a landslide recently buried several refugees' shelters.

People come out their door, and it almost drops right off. Wow.

We are in the Balukhali camp. A sand cliff that's probably three or four stories high rises straight up to our left. There are huts perched precariously on top of it, and kids keep coming to the edge to peer down at us. To our right, the hill drops off sharply, and just below us there are more shelters made of tarps and plastic and bamboo poles. Halfway up this slope we find Shah Miya digging at a wall of sand that's fallen on part of his shelter. Miya says it was late at night in the midst of a monsoon downpour when the hillside above them collapsed.

SHAH MIYA: (Speaking Rohingya).

YASSIN: He said that they didn't know it would fall down. But before the collapse, they had a big noise - boom (ph), like this. And then it fell down.

BEAUBIEN: Miya lives with two of his daughters and four grandkids in this shelter. And he says fortunately, no one was injured when the landslide hit. This was the first place they could find to build after fleeing Myanmar 11 months ago. Back in Myanmar, he says he had a strong house made of wood. But here in Bangladesh, he's left dealing with sand and mud and walls made of nothing more than plastic sheeting. Like most of the refugees, the family cooks over open fires. But in the current monsoons, his daughter Dilarah says getting dry firewood can be almost impossible.

DILARAH: (Through interpreter) The monsoon just - we have wet firewood. We have wet stove. We have wet everything. Everything is wet. That's why it is harder to cook, especially in the monsoon.

BEAUBIEN: Despite these difficult living conditions and the precarious location of Miya's shelter, Miya says he plans to rebuild in exactly the same spot. This camp is so overcrowded already that he says there's no other place to put a shelter. Here he knows his neighbors. Two of his grandkids go to a nearby school two hours a day.

MIYA: (Through interpreter) So with those children, where would I go? So that's why I prefer to stay here.

BEAUBIEN: Thousands of shelters in the camps have collapsed. One neighborhood leader shows us a tented mosque that's been submerged under landslides three times and then repeatedly rebuilt. Aid groups led by UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, however, have been trying to create safer, more stable settlements. On the very edge of what is now the largest refugee camp in the world, bulldozers are flattening the hills, and workers are building long rows of new shelters. More than 30,000 people have been relocated to planned settlements like this one.

SARAH JABIN: We are bringing people from landslide risk areas, from flood-affected areas, from construction sites.

BEAUBIEN: Sarah Jabin is an assistant field officer with UNHCR. She says most of the refugees don't want to move. Many of the Rohingya settled into camps next to people they knew from their villages back in Myanmar. They don't want to lose those social bonds. Jabin says another obstacle is that the Rohingya never faced landslides in their villages at home, so the idea of an avalanche is foreign to them.

JABIN: No matter how much we showed pictures, how much we gave examples how it happens, they were adamant that, no, this is not a reality; this is not going to happen to us. And that was also an added struggle for us to convince them.

BEAUBIEN: Roshedha Begum was one of the people who finally got convinced and moved to this new area set up by UNHCR.

ROSHEDHA BEGUM: (Speaking Rohingya).

BEAUBIEN: She just moved into her shelter a few days ago. But she says she doesn't like being on the outer edge of this megacamp. She says it's a long walk now to get to the mosque or the health clinic. Talking about the difficulties in the camp, Begum gets angry. And then it becomes clear that it's not the distance to the mosque or how far away the market is that's bothering her. She's upset that she's here at all. She's mad, she says, that the government in Myanmar succeeded in driving the Rohingya from their villages.

BEGUM: (Speaking Rohingya).

BEAUBIEN: "In the violence, we lost our country," she says. Then she pulls out her phone and shows me a photograph of her son's dead body. He was killed, she says, by Myanmar soldiers last year in the midst of the attacks on the Rohingya. And at that point, her anger turns to tears. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.