Alshalabi oversees the many construction crews that are chopping hills in half, making graded terraces of their slopes and reinforcing them with treated-bamboo retention walls. Native vegetation is then planted on the terraces to help hold the soil together. In recent months, several new camps have been built in this manner, allowing Rohingya families to relocate to safer shelters than those initially built as the crisis unfolded.
“We call it ‘decongesting the camps,'” Alshalabi told DW. “Almost 25,000 people have been relocated into the camp 20 and camp 4 extensions. But the old camps are so densely populated that it doesn’t seem like that many people moved.”
Taken together, the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar are the largest refugee settlement in the world. A report by Human Rights Watch published in August 2018 found the camp to be severely overcrowded, with an average usable space of just 10.7 square meters per person. The report called for Rohingya refugees to be relocated to safer areas outside the camps, but the long-term prospects of hosting the displaced community has become a contentious subject in Bangladeshi politics.
Government officials continue to put pressure on Myanmar to repatriate Rohingya refugees and, in viewing their stay as temporary, have banned the use of permanent construction materials in the camps, compounding existing infrastructure problems.
Yet for the time being, earthmoving projects continue and, in the process, provide much needed employment for camp residents, who are neither permitted to work nor attend schools. Several thousand Rohingya refugees have signed up to participate in the program and are paid roughly $5 (€4.5) for an eight-hour workday, the minimum wage in Bangladesh. Among them is Mohamed Elias, a 35-year-old refugee who has been living in the camps since 2017.
“During the rainy season, it gets very wet here,” Elias said as he worked to level out a terrace. “The soil breaks down easily and the hills collapse, so what we are doing now will protect our homes … it also feels good to work.”
Rohingya females also take part in the infrastructure projects and compose about 30% of the total workforce. Roshida Begum, a mother of four whose husband was killed in Myanmar, said she waters vegetation on the terraces in the morning, carries soil to construction sites in the afternoon, and cooks meals for her children during breaks.
“The salary has helped me buy many things like cooking oil, rice and additional food to supplement the food aid we are getting,” Begum told DW.
“In Myanmar, the security situation was not good for Rohingya, but in Bangladesh they are quite good at keeping us safe,” she continued. “The food rations go up and down, but security is good.”
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