Fire Devastates Rohingya Refugee Camp in Cox’s Bazar

A massive fire tore through the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on the afternoon of Monday, March 22. The blaze began around 3:00 p.m. local time and quickly grew out of control. 

According to officials at the Inter-Sector Coordination Group, the humanitarian organization overseeing the camp, at least 15 people were killed. A further 560 were injured, 400 reported missing, and thousands more rendered homeless and vulnerable. Many of those missing are presumed dead. In total, 87,000 people are thought to have been affected by the fire. Some residents of Kutupalong reported that they were trapped by the barbed wire fences that surround the camp, and resorted to cutting holes in the fences in order to escape the deadly flames.

The fire ravaged an estimated 250 acres of the camp, according to a government official. Among the destroyed structures were nutrition and food distribution centres operated by the World Food Programme and the International Organization for Migration’s largest health clinic in the camp.

Aid teams from the World Food Programme, the International Organization for Migration, UNICEF, and other humanitarian organizations have been deployed to provide urgent assistance to those affected by the fire. Working with refugee volunteers, aid workers will commence efforts to rebuild the destroyed shelters. James Elder, a spokesperson for UNICEF, stressed the importance of rebuilding quickly, since the summer monsoon season is fast approaching.

Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh’s junior minister for foreign affairs, announced on Twitter on Tuesday that a committee has been formed to investigate the fire. The report is expected by the end of this week.

Cox’s Bazar houses nearly 900,000 displaced people, making it the largest refugee settlement in the world. The Kutupalong “mega camp,” which comprises around 26 subcamps, is home to over 700,000 of them. Kutupalong’s population has long exceeded its capacity, and conditions are reportedly appalling. Most residents live packed together in shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulin and have little to no access to adequate healthcare, sanitation, or clean water.

Nearly all of the refugees living in the camps in Cox’s Bazar are Rohingya Muslims who fled the brutal 2017 military crackdown in Buddhist-majority Myanmar that the United Nations has determined was carried out “with genocidal intent.” Over 730,000 Rohingya were forced to migrate to neighbouring Bangladesh in order to escape the massacre, and many have been living in refugee camps since. 

Efforts to repatriate the Rohingya have been largely unsuccessful despite repeated promises made by the government. In January of this year, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and China made progress in talks on the subject of repatriation; but when the same military that perpetrated the massacre of the Rohingya in 2017 seized power in Myanmar this February, that flicker of hope was extinguished again for many refugees.