Massive Fire Destroys Rohingya Refugee Camp

“We lost everything. We don’t even have a glass or plate to have water or food,” Abdul Jabba told Al Jazeera. “We have to start all over again.”

Jabba is just one of the people suffering tragic damages from the massive fire which broke out in Bangladesh’s Balukhali camp for Rohingya refugees on March 22nd. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Balukhali hosted over 120,000 people before the fire. Now, the camp has been reduced partly to ashes, leaving at least 15 people dead, hundreds injured or missing, and nearly 45,000 homeless.

Officials have determined the cause of the fire to be related to exploded cooking gas cylinders and strong winds. The fire quickly spread through the densely populated refugee camp, leading to a dangerous agglomeration at the camp’s exits. Some children were even separated from their families. Indeed, the fences which surround the camp may have posed a serious threat in this situation. Many said the fences acted as a barrier, trapping some refugees inside the barbed wire.

Brad Adams, director of the Asian region of the Human Rights Watch, reported the alarming dangers posed by the fencing and several international humanitarian agencies have advocated for its removal. However, Bangladeshi refugee commissioner Shah Rezwan Hayat denies those claims. Indeed, Hayat claims that the fences did not negatively affect either the camp’s evacuation or the rescue teams’ access.

The devastation at Balukhali echoes the 2017 crackdown which first brought more than 700,000 Rohingya to shelter in Bangladesh. Considered “genocidal intent” by United Nations investigators and fuelled by ethnic discrimination, Myanmar’s military campaign of arson and homicide against Rohingya Muslims was brutal. Despite the UN’s denunciation of Myanmar’s “grave human rights abuses” in 2019, however, the country’s military officials deny claims of genocide and justify their operations as being counter-terrorist.

Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district became an attractive refuge for Rohingya fleeing persecution. The region is now home to one of the largest refugee camps. Nevertheless, the Rohingya have been received with adversity. There have been several attempts at repatriation in the form of a joint agreement between Bangladeshi and Burmese authorities. The refugees refused to join the agreement out of fear of more persecution and violence, especially since Myanmar’s military coup in February.

Many non-governmental organizations have made timely responses to this latest tragedy. Johannes van der Klaauw, the United Nations refugee representative in Bangladesh, classified the extent of the fire as catastrophic and announced that large rescue and relief efforts are already underway. The U.N.’s top relief official additionally announced the deployment of $14 million in emergency funding to assist thousands of Rohingya families. In response to the displacement crisis, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society has built around 800 tents to temporarily house refugees and has distributed food and water to the affected families. Rights group have also called for the crowded camps to be “built back safer,” the New Humanitarian says, with shelters spread out further and constructed with fire-resistant materials.

The rapid reaction from N.G.O.s, rights groups, and international organizations should be applauded. However, Bangladesh’s government must be held accountable for failing to provide the support required to avoid such tragedy.

The fire which broke down the Balukhali camp shows the pressing Rohingya need for a safer shelter environment. Refugee camps may be a temporary solution to the Rohingya’s displacement, but their security should not be neglected. Better organization, as well as non-flammable materials, should be prioritized as these homes are rebuilt.