By Alex Butler
On Sunday, January 9, yet another fire hit a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where thousands of Rohingya refugees are currently living after being forced to flee their homes in Myanmar. The fire took place around 5 pm local time and has caused significant damage to sections of the refugee camp, which is the largest of its kind in the world. The Guardian reported that the fire started in camp 16 and quickly spread through shelters, which are made of bamboo and tarpaulin. So far, the cause and origin of the fire are unknown.
As the fire spread, refugees were forced to break through wire fencing to reach safety. This wire fencing has been a topic of criticism by human rights groups up to this point. Many are now pointing to this fire as evidence of the risks of such fencing. There currently are no reports that Bangladesh is planning to remove them.
"The settlement hosts more than a million people and is the world's largest refugee camp"
Kamaran Hossain, a spokesperson for the Armed Police Battalion, the head of security in the camp, alleges that the fire burned around 1,200 houses, per the Guardian. More than 5,000 refugees have been left without a home. Mohammad Rafique, a camp resident, states that his family is safe, but his house has been destroyed. “I have lost everything. I could not save any material or any goods that I own. As it is winter, people will suffer a lot,” he adds.
Several organizations responded to the blaze. Teams from UN migration agency IOM were mobilized on Sunday. IOM has taken steps to assemble non-food item kits for affected households that include items such as blankets, which are desperately needed in the current cold and dry weather.
The officer-in-charge for IOM Bangladesh has stated that they are coordinating with other humanitarian actors to ensure that those affected are provided with food, health, protection, water, sanitation, and hygienic needs, reports the UN News. The World Food Programme (WFP) has reported that it has begun serving hot meals to around 2,200 camp residents. It plans to distribute hot meals twice a day to families who have no means of cooking for themselves anymore.
Additionally, a mobile medical team is on the ground and providing assistance as needed. Another team is being developed within the camp to ensure that residents have access to accurate and helpful information. The top priorities for these organizations include shelter repair and rebuilding and access to cooking facilities.
This was not the first fire that has hit the refugee camp. A large fire broke out on January 2, 2020 and it resulted in severe damage to IOM’s Severe Acute Respiratory Infection and Isolation and Treatment Center, which was a necessary part of battling COVID-19 in the camps.
Furthermore, last March, a massive fire tore through the camp claiming several lives and further displaced some 45,000 Rohingya refugees. OXFAM reported that at least 15 were killed, 500 were injured, and hundreds were reported missing. The fire burnt down more than 10,000 shelters and was reportedly exacerbated by wire fencing, which trapped refugees. The fire left the surviving refugees in urgent need of food, water, and sanitation services. Many families have still not recovered.
Conditions in the camps make large fires a considerable risk. The settlement hosts more than a million people and is the world’s largest refugee camp. Bamboo and tarpaulin shelters are packed tightly together and surrounded by the fencing and the closeness of the population further risks the spread of COVID-19.
The camps’ conditions provide other risks aside from fire and Covid-19. Human Rights Watch has described the camps as “squalid and abusive,” stating that there are severe limitations on livelihoods, movement, education, health care, and adequate food and shelter. While there are many consequences of such conditions, in terms of the fire, it prevented camp residents from being able to help. In an interview with the Guardian, Mohammad Yasin points out that there was no way the camp’s residents could have put out the fire, as there was no water available.
Furthermore, the refugee population within the camps face higher malnutrition rates, waterborne illnesses, and child and maternal mortality. Reportedly, Rohingya within the camp say that they are denied freedom of movement, and those found outside the camp are subject to torture and other abuses by security forces. These overall conditions have led to a sense of overwhelming hopelessness within the camps, per HRW.
Roughly one million Rohingya have fled Myanmar to escape the violence carried out by their home state. While they have been targeted since the early 1990s, the recent military coup had significantly worsened their conditions, with the violence reaching a level of genocidal intent. Ethnic cleansing and internment since 2012 paved the way for the military’s mass atrocities in 2016 and 2017. As of 2022, more than 600,000 live in a network of camps in Cox’s Bazar, located in southeast Bangladesh, with limited plans to repatriate them in the near future.