ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
We're going to spend the next few minutes hearing about 1 million Rohingya refugees who are living in camps in Bangladesh. They were in the news a lot of year ago when a huge flood of people left neighboring Myanmar, fleeing what the U.N. calls ethnic cleansing and others called genocide.
NPR's Jason Beaubien just got back from another visit to Bangladesh. Hi, Jason
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hello.
SHAPIRO: You've covered the story on and off for more than a year. You and I were sitting in the studio, and you told us stories about camps where people were packed into incredibly flimsy shelters made out of tarps and bamboo on muddy hillsides, where there was concern about mudslides...
SHAPIRO: ...And people possibly being killed in monsoon rains. A year later, what's changed?
BEAUBIEN: Some things are still the same, but a lot has improved over the last year and a half. There are still some people living just in the most basic shelters - just a bamboo hut wrapped in plastic. But the good news is that a lot of people have started to move into better shelters that are laid out in rows. There are drainage ditches. They're in sturdier land.
There's this really amazing site on the outskirts of the Kutupalong camp. It almost looks like they're building the pyramids out in the desert.
MOSA ALSHALABI: So we are here creating a safe land for living and slope stabilization because that soil is not safe at all. All these houses - when it rains, the whole soil will be washed away.
BEAUBIEN: That's Mosa Alshalabi. He's an engineer with the U.N.'s World Food Program. He says over the last few weeks, these crews have been literally moving mountains.
ALSHALABI: For example, that road wasn't here. That was a mountain. We cut that mountain to make a flat platform safe for living.
SHAPIRO: Like an actual mountain, or just a pile of dirt?
BEAUBIEN: I mean, these are not actual, actual mountains, but they're really big hills.
BEAUBIEN: And they're all made out of sand. And they are just out there - all of these workers - by hand with shovels and grain bags, moving the sand, making it completely level, terracing these hillsides. The WFP is paying them $5 a day. Alshalabi said on this day, he had a thousand workers.
ALSHALABI: We construct road. We construct bridges. We're cutting hills. We stabilize the slopes. And we make a difference for the whole community in the area here.
SHAPIRO: OK, so real infrastructure improvements in some parts of the camp, but you said some people are still living in the kind of squalor that they were living in a year ago.
BEAUBIEN: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. In some of the older parts of the camp, it's still really chaotic. They're packed in. It's really tight. One neighbor can actually reach out and touch their neighbor's hut next door.
There's this one area called the Balukali camp. And I saw workers that were trying to install solar street lamps. But they couldn't find enough open space in between the huts to actually put the concrete footings in for these lamp poles.
I talked this one guy. He's a 40-year-old guy. His name is Noor Kamal. He arrived in Balukali, along with almost everybody else a year and a half ago, fleeing from these militias that were torching their villages back in Myanmar.
NOOR KAMAL: (Foreign language spoken).
BEAUBIEN: What he's saying there is that he would like to go back to Myanmar. But he says he thinks it could be years before he's able to do so.
SHAPIRO: There were plans to bring people back that it seems like went nowhere. And now it sounds like people are really digging in in Bangladesh. What would be required for people to be able to return?
BEAUBIEN: You know what's really interesting is the other trips that I went on, everybody said, look, we want to go back to our farms. And we want three conditions - we want make sure it's safe. We want Myanmar to actually recognize us as citizens, which they have not been doing. They don't give them passports. They don't recognize them. They're basically a stateless people. And they wanted their land back.
But now, people are saying they want one other thing - they want justice. They want the people who carried out these attacks to be brought before some sort of criminal tribunal which doesn't even exist. And Myanmar denies that it happened. That probably is just going to be one more impediment for finding a solution to this and finding a way for them to get home.
SHAPIRO: Myanmar seems very unlikely to meet those demands. So what would a long-term future in this camp look like for the Rohingya?
BEAUBIEN: I mean, it's a huge logistical challenge. You've got nearly a million people. One of these camps has 650,000 people, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. They're entirely - almost entirely - dependent on international food aid to survive. It's been an environmental disaster with all the vegetation and trees cut down for firewood. So humanitarian groups are trying to look long-term.
And one of the main things that I noticed this time was that they're passing out gas stoves to people. However, the logistics of actually getting canisters of gas to every one of these households is another huge challenge in a place where the roads aren't good. The World Food Program is also switching over from passing out big bags of rice to trying to have retail stores where people get electronic cards and they're able to go shopping.
So there's this movement from the humanitarians to try to make this a more sustainable, more smooth operation to sustain this huge number of people basically living in a nature preserve.
SHAPIRO: So tell me about daily life in the middle of all this. How are people actually, like, spending their time and raising their families?
BEAUBIEN: They're going about their daily lives. There are health clinics. There are learning centers, which are basically schools. There are markets. There are people going off to work. You've got some playgrounds that are popping up.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)
BEAUBIEN: Real playgrounds, with, like, metal slides and swing sets. And one of the things that really struck me was a lot of people are planting gardens. And people are getting a lot of satisfaction out of that.
FATIMA KATU: (Through interpreter) I'm very happy here.
BEAUBIEN: This is 40-year-old Fatima Katu. And she recently moved with her husband and six children to a new shelter in these areas that those day laborers have been constructing. She's planted squash beans, chili.
KATU: (Through interpreter) We have more space here. And now it feels like home.
BEAUBIEN: She says her family had a much larger farm back in Myanmar. But at least here, she says, being able to grow things makes it feel like she's not just entirely dependent on these international agencies to provide them with food.
SHAPIRO: Jason, you and I have both been to refugee camps that have existed for decades or generations. Does that seem to be the direction that this Rohingya camp in Bangladesh is moving in?
BEAUBIEN: It certainly feels that way, yet the Bangladeshi government continues to insist day in and day out this is not going to be permanent. We're going to find some other solution. We're going to move them somewhere else. Or we're going to get them to go back to Myanmar. There was a campaign last year. They were offering free transportation, moving benefits for anyone who wanted to go. And they had absolutely zero takers among the Rohingya refugees.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Jason Beaubien just back from Bangladesh. Thanks so much.
BEAUBIEN: It's good to be back.
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