Hundreds Missing After A Fire At The World’s Largest Refugee Camp

A fire broke out on March 22nd at Cox’s Bazar Refugee Camp in Bangladesh due to an unknown cause. Mohammad Abdullah, Deputy Assistant Director of the fire service from the camp, informed BBC Bengali that despite having the fire under control at midnight, smoke was still “billowing from many places.” It reportedly raged for over 10 hours. At least 400 are missing, more than 550 were injured, and fifteen have been killed, according to the UN’S Refugee Agency- UNHCR. Three of the fifteen killed are only children.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has said that the fire has severely impacted approximately 123,000 refugees. Shobe Meraj, a victim, recounted to the BBC, saying, “My daughter-in-law is pregnant…I sold my gold to take her to hospital. All my money is burnt and my daughter-in-law is missing.” Many were forced to find shelter elsewhere as about 27,000 were displaced, as reported by The Danish Refugee Council. Witnesses informed Refugees International that the barbed wire around the camp sadly trapped others. The fire engulfed the area at lightning speed, especially after the gas cylinders used for cooking exploded. UNHCR’s Johannes Van der Laauw, who joined an online Geneva briefing from Dhaka, Bangladesh, has said, “We still have 400 people unaccounted for, maybe somewhere in the rubble.” However, Nizam Uddin Ahmed, Ukhiya’s (sub-region of Cox’s Bazar) top government official, has assured that all the missing victims will be recovered. The fire departments and volunteers are working hard to remove the rubble and clean the houses.

Jan Egeland, the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, explained that relief teams were shocked at the dire amount of destruction that the fire caused. Egeland had also agreed that the wired fencing was an obstacle to safety, saying, “This tragic event could have been less disastrous had barbed wire fencing not been erected encircling the camps. NRC staff have heard horrific accounts from refugees about their scramble to cut through the wire fences to save their families, escape the fire and reach safety.” Additionally, Van der Klaauw had reaffirmed that the fire’s impact was appalling in the Geneva briefing, stating, “What we have seen in this fire is something we have never seen before in these camps. It is massive. It is devastating.” Meanwhile, Refugees International reminded us that Rohingya refugees are in great adversity in these words: “This tragedy is an awful reminder of the vulnerable position of Rohingya refugees who are caught between increasingly precarious conditions in Bangladesh and the reality of a homeland now ruled by the military responsible for the genocide that forced them to flee.”

Despite the bleak prospects that these conditions present, it is comforting to see the relief efforts and unanimous assistance that people, including those in power, provide the Rohingya refugees. According to M. A. Halim, Head of Operations in Cox’s Bazar for the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, the efforts employed involve these necessary means- food, water, and rebuilt shelter. Meanwhile, the UN’s International Organization for migration has pledged $1,000,000 to relief efforts already. This is a promising step towards the $20,000,000 needed to tackle the most pressing needs of the Rohingya refugees.

From August 25th, 2017, Buddhist-majority Myanmar employed an unfortunate military crackdown on over 1,000,000 Rohingya (the highest number of Muslims in Myanmar) in response to lethal attacks on thirty police posts by Rohingya Arsa militants. They consequently fled to Bangladesh on foot or by boat, making treacherous journeys. According to the UN, the crackdown had genocidal tendencies and was a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Unsurprisingly, the military assured it was fighting Rohingya militants, not civilians. Aung San Suu Kyi, a former Human Rights figure, denied everything as well. The UN has ordered Myanmar to protect the Rohingya in January 2020; however, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Many attempts were made under a joint agreement for their repatriation, but this failed as the Rohingya refused to leave to an unsafe ‘home’ that persecuted and refused to grant them citizenship amongst other fundamental rights. They’re considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, where they remain unwanted, being pushed to relocate to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal upon the grounds that the settlements are overpopulated. About 13,000 have already been relocated to the flood-prone island in time for the seasonal cyclones. The Myanmar coup d’état initiated in February this year has only worsened fears as brutality against citizens persists; the Rohingya are very unlikely to be immune to the poor treatment.

According to the World Food Program, the fire has wrecked at least 10,000 shelters forcing refugees to seek asylum with camps, friends, family, and learning centers. Meanwhile, the monsoon season from June to October will add further complications and stress. Overall, whether it be weathering the politically charged storm or the cyclones to come, the Rohingya need urgent support. Onno Van Manen, Bangladesh country director of the charity Save the Children, put it well: “These people, the Rohingya refugees, have already gone through extremely traumatizing events over the last couple of years. They are obviously living under very, very challenging conditions. You can imagine that they are already dealing with lots of stress. And this event is certainly going to further affect that.”

The Rohingya are helpless and homeless, sandwiched between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Their future remains uncertain and bleak in these unprecedented times, especially after Bangladesh’s March 2019 announcement that they’ll no longer house Rohingya refugees.

Juliana Subhan
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