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Bangladesh searches for cause of refugee camp fire

March 23, 2021

With at least 15 people dead and thousands without shelter following a fire at a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, urgent international aid is needed.

A Rohingya woman sits on the ground with her belongings as her shelter has been burned down following a fire that broke out at a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar
A fire left several dead and tens of thousands displaced at a Rohingya refugee camp in BangladeshImage: Ro Yassin Abdumona/REUTERS

Officials in Bangladesh on Tuesday are investigating the cause of a deadly fire that tore through a Rohingya refugee camp in the southeastern town of Cox's Bazar.

The extent of casualties and damages caused by Monday's fire at the Balukhali camp may not be fully determined for some time. The United Nations, however, reported Tuesday that it confirmed 15 people, including at least three children, were killed in the fire and over 400 remain missing. 

The Balukhali Rohingya camp after a huge fire broken out
Volunteers and aid groups spent all night battling to extinguish the blazeImage: Stringer/AA/picture alliance

How bad was the fire at the refugee camp?

"What we have seen in this fire is something we have never seen before in these camps. It is massive. It is devastating," Johannes van der Klaauw, the UN Refugee Agency's representative in Bangladesh, told reporters in Geneva via video-link from Dhaka. He added that the UN had received reports of as many as 550 people missing and 45,000 displaced.

Save the Children's Country Director in Bangladesh Onno van Manen told DW that at least 10,000 households were left without shelter.

"In the coming days, the area needs to be cleared," he said. "New shelters need to be built, and we need urgent support for that."

In a situation report released on Tuesday, the UN's World Food Program said up to 87,855 people were affected by the blaze and that many people had taken shelter in other nearby camps, learning centers for children and temporary transit sites.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in a statement that more than 1,000 staff and volunteers worked through the night with firefighters, camp residents and other agencies to rescue people and douse the fire.

"We are providing relief through food and water, and erecting emergency shelters for people who have lost their homes. These devastating fires will require even greater efforts by all agencies in the coming weeks, particularly as the cyclone season approaches," the societies' statement said.

What made the fire so deadly?

While officials said the cause of the fire remains unknown, barbed-wire fencing put up around parts of the camp likely made it difficult for some people to escape from the flames.

"We do know that the fencing has taken place and is surrounding large parts of the of the camps," he said. "That certainly hasn't made it easier for refugees to flee or to escape a fire."

Police inspector Gazi Salahuddin said the fire grew after gas cylinders used for cooking exploded.

A fire at a Rohingya camp in January also gutted several UN-funded schools. The frequency of blazes in the camps led Amnesty International's South Asia campaigner, Saad Hammadi, to tweet that "frequency of fire in the camps is too coincidental, especially when outcomes of previous investigations into the incidents are not known and they keep repeating."

Rohingya leader Sayed Ullah demanded an immediate probe. "It is not clear why these fire incidents are happening repeatedly in the camps. It needs proper and complete investigation," he said.

How has the world responded to the fire?

The UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM) said it has pledged $1 million (€842,000) to relief efforts but a further $20 million would be required to react to the most urgent needs.

"IOM is distributing emergency assistance to all those affected. This assistance includes shelter kits that will allow people to begin to rebuild their homes, as well as emergency items such as blankets, solar lights, mosquito nets, and jerrycans.

"With the start of the monsoon looming, rebuilding is critical. IOM will continue to help people reconstruct durable shelters, emergency latrines and the vital health facility."

Why are so many Rohingya people at the camps?

Camps in Bangladesh currently provide shelter to more than a million people — the vast majority Rohingya Muslims who have fled violence in neighboring Myanmar.

Following a 2017 crackdown on Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, many fled across the border to Bangladesh. The UN said the crackdown had a "genocidal intent," a change that Myanmar denies.

Although Bangladesh has tried to repatriate refugees back to Buddhist-majority Myanmar, the refugees have refused to leave, fearing more violence in a country that has denied them citizenship as well as other human rights.

The situation has been further complicated by a coup deposing Myanmar's elected leaders at the beginning of February and a series of protests against the new military leaders.  

sms/msh (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)