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Fire becomes new fear for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

Arafatul Islam
April 7, 2021

Several deadly fire incidents in overcrowded Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh over the past several weeks point to a "very worrying trend," say experts.

Rohingya camp in Cox's Bazar
A Rohingya refugee stands among the remains of burnt materials after a fire broke out recently at a camp in Cox's BazarImage: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS

Three Rohingya men died after a fire gutted shops at a makeshift market near the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh's southeastern Cox's Bazar district on Friday.   

Their bodies were found in one of 20 shops burned after the fire broke out before dawn at the market near the Kutupalong refugee camp. 

While the reason behind the fire is yet to be known, it is the latest incident to cost lives of the refugees, who have been living in the Muslim-majority country for decades.

The refugees have witnessed several other fire incidents in recent weeks, including the most devastating one on March 22 that killed at least 11 people, burned over 10,000 shanties and left more than 45,000 others homeless.  

Nearly one million of the persecuted Muslim minority — many of whom escaped a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar that UN investigators concluded was executed with "genocidal intent" — live in squalid conditions at the network of camps in Cox's Bazar.

Fire safety is a major issue in the camps 

Louise Donovan, the spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Cox's Bazar, told DW that apart from the bigger incidents, multiple smaller fires have also been reported across camps in Kutupalong and Nayapara in the past week. 

"This is a very worrying trend. Refugees have managed to put out the fires quickly with only a limited number of families affected," she said, adding: "Investigations by camp authorities are underway." 

The fire service authority of Cox's Bazar has recorded 73 fire incidents in the Rohingya refugee camps since 2017, claiming the lives of at least 25 refugees.

2021 has been the deadliest year so far, with at least 14 refugees losing their lives to fires in the first three months of the year.

The average population density in the camps is about 40,000 people per square kilometer, which is much higher than in most other refugee camps across the world.

Most of the huts in the settlements are made with tarpaulin and bamboo, which are easily flammable and help spread fire on a fast scale.

Donovan pointed out that the Bangladeshi government, UN agencies and NGO partners have been implementing fire prevention measures to ensure the people are trained and well-informed on fire safety practices and that response mechanisms are in place in case fires happen.

However, she stressed that more needs to be done to improve the safety situation. 

"The recent incidents highlight that further efforts are required in order to ensure the safety of refugees in the case of fires and other emergencies. These are being discussed among all partners as well as the Bangladeshi authorities," she underlined. 

Barbed-wire fences 'dangerous and damaging'

Mohammad Zubair, a Rohingya refugee at a camp, thinks that at least one deep motor tube well with long pipes needs to be set up in each block of the camps for use during an emergency.

"Housing for refugees in the camps should be made with less flammable objects like bricks and tin," he told DW.

But Zubair, who is a member of the Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights, expressed his concern over the barbed-wire fences around the camps. He stressed that they hampered the rescue efforts and caused injuries during the devastating fire on March 22.

"The fence has proved to be dangerous and damaging for us. It leaves us unsafe and unprotected during an emergency situating like fire," he said. "It's totally inhumane to put us in a barbed-wire fence which severely restricts our freedom of movement."

Louise Donovan of UNHCR echoed a similar view. She said that rescue efforts and access to the affected areas proved to be challenging because of the presence of perimeter fencing. 

"In some areas, heavy fire-fighting machinery could not be brought close to the fire due to the concrete pillars of the fence. In some instances, refugees themselves cut through the fence to escape the fire," she said. 

"When the fences were erected, we had proposed to the authorities that such security measures should be proportionate and allow for quick escape and aid supply routes in case of natural disasters such as floods, cyclones, or fires." 

However, Bangladesh refugee commissioner Shah Rezwan Hayat defended the fences, which were built by the military in recent months amid a worsening law and order situation in the vast settlements.

"The fence is situated on the outer periphery of the camps. Therefore, it doesn't cause any damage or hamper any rescue work," he told DW.    

Fires make refugees fearful

While the reasons behind the fire incidents are still being investigated, Rohingya activists suspect that the recent ones are not accidental.

Some refugees who live in the camps have posted pictures and videos on social media of people suspected of igniting fires in the camps.

Local security forces have also made some arrests in connection to those incidents.

Frightened by the recent fires, some refugees have created groups of volunteer watchmen to protect their huts from intentional fire incidents. 

Nay San Lwin, a co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, suspects that the recent fires are "intentionally done by a group of criminals."   

"The most important thing that needs to be done to stop a fire is to eliminate the criminal gangs. They are the problem. We have been hearing a lot of reports from the refugees about those gangs," he told DW, adding: "Refugees are all living in fear now because of the fires."

Bangladesh relocates Rohingya to remote island

The deadly fire incidents occur at a time when Bangladesh has been relocating thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers to a remote island named Bhasan Char, prone to cyclones and floods.

Bangladeshi authorities have sent about 13,000 refugees to the island despite opposition from international aid agencies and rights groups due to concerns over the island's habitability.

The South Asian nation wants to relocate 100,000 refugees in total to the island from Cox's Bazar's overcrowded camps in the coming months. 

Nay San Lwin fears that over 45,000 Rohingya affected by the recent fires could eventually be relocated to the island. 

"They shouldn't be relocated to Bhasan Char or repatriated to Myanmar. They should be resettled back in their original shelters," he urged.

Shah Rezwan Hayat, the refugee commissioner, said none of those affected by the fires had been relocated to the island so far.

"The relocation to the island is completely voluntary. We didn't include any fire victims in the latest group that relocated to the island recently," he noted, adding: "If the fire victims want to go to the island in the future, we will arrange it."