Devastating Fire Strikes a Bangladesh Rohingya Refugee Camp

A massive fire ravaged the Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh on Monday, March 22. It was the worst fire in the cramped settlement since 2017 and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates 15 people were killed and 550 injured, with another 400 missing. At least 10,000 shelters were destroyed, leaving approximately 45,000 people displaced; an estimate that could increase as aid assessments continue. The flames spread rapidly over four sections of the camp, burning the bamboo and tarpaulin structures, and the fire grew more intense with the explosion of cooking gas cylinders. Witnesses and residents of the camp have described people running for their lives and trying to save what few possessions they had. Many essential service structures were damaged as well, including distribution sites, education centres and women’s support services. Two major hospitals, run by the International Organization for Migration and the Turkish government, were also destroyed.

In an online briefing following the fire, Johannes Van der Klaauw from the UNHCR called the situation “devastating”. Other human rights officials have expressed concerns, including Onno Van Manen, the Bangladesh country director for Save the Children, who described the fire as “another devastating blow to the Rohingya refugees who live here”. According to CNN, the Red Crescent Society of Bangladesh has said it is launching one of its, “biggest ever rescue and relief efforts,” in the Balukhali camp, indicating the scale of destruction.

The fire was the largest in a series of fires that have hit the camp this year. Two large fires occurred in January 2021, which also left thousands of refugees homeless and damaged four UNICEF-run schools. The March 22 fire was also the third to hit the camp in just four days, as two smaller fires occurred on Friday, March 19, destroying several shelters as well. Bangladesh is conducting an investigation into the cause of the fire but the outcomes of previous investigations are unknown to the public and the cause of the repeated fires remains unclear. Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner, says the “frequency of fire in the camps is too coincidental” as the devastating incidents keep repeating. A proper investigation with shared results is necessary to determine the cause and ensure the safety of the Rohingya refugees.

Witnesses have pointed to the barbed wire fencing surrounding the camp, saying it prevented many people from escaping the fire easily and hurt some in the process. International humanitarian agencies have since called for the Bangladesh government to remove the barbed wire. In addition to the risk it poses in emergencies, organizations also say the barbed wire has made humanitarian aid distribution efforts more challenging.

Balukhali camp holds approximately 124,000 refugees, which accounts for one tenth of the estimated 1 million Rohingya refugees in camps near the town of Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh. Most people in these camps fled Myanmar in 2017 following a targeted military campaign of arson and killing that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh. UN investigators and human rights organizations say the military’s persecution of the Rohingya had “genocidal intent,” but Myanmar has denied these allegations.

This latest Balukhali disaster highlights the broader insecurity of the stateless Rohingya refugees. Thousands of Rohingya who already fled the dangerous situation in Myanmar have been displaced once again by the fire. Subject to the decisions of governments and organizations which determine their futures, they are stuck in refugee camps in an unsustainable state of limbo. Although ideally these camps should only be a temporary solution, as long as they remain the homes of the refugees, the well-being and security of the Rohingya must be prioritized.