A massive fire gutted hundreds of cramped and flimsy makeshift shelters at a refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh on Thursday and left thousands of Rohingya homeless, officials said.
At least 14 people were injured but no casualties were reported after firefighters extinguished the blaze at the Nayapara camp in Teknaf, a sub-district of Cox’s Bazar, said Mohammad Shamsud Douza, an additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner.
“The fire broke out at around 2:30 a.m. Thursday. According to our estimates, some 552 shelter-homes were gutted, affecting some 3,000 Rohingya. None died,” Douza told BenarNews.
“The fire spread easily because the houses were built close to each other.”
Most of the 1 million Rohingya who fled Myanmar live in 34 refugee camps in and around Cox’s Bazar district, including more than 740,000 who escaped a brutal crackdown in nearby Rakhine state in 2017.
By Thursday afternoon, many Rohingya could be seen sitting in front of their gutted homes, or sifting through the ashes to see if they could salvage any of their belongings. Many children were crying and asking for food.
The fire drew attention to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees sheltering in crowded camps in Bangladesh’s southeastern border region.
“This is another devastating blow for the Rohingya people who have endured unspeakable hardship for years,” said Onno van Manen, the in-country director for British humanitarian NGO Save the Children.
“Since 2017, more than one million Rohingya refugees, half of whom are children, have lived in cramped camps after being violently forced from their homes across the border in Myanmar to escape unimaginable violence. … Today’s devastating fire will have robbed many families of what little shelter and dignity was left to them.”
Thursday’s blaze was the largest of at least 25 major fires in Cox’s Bazar camps since 2017, the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense Department said.
In May last year, a large fire damaged more than 400 tents at Kutupalong, the largest of the refugee camps in Ukhia, another sub-district of Cox’s Bazar.
Thursday’s fire took a long time to douse because the otherwise flimsy structures – made of tin – were supported by concrete pillars, said Muhammad Abdullah, a fire service official.
“In case of a fire, we usually flatten the adjacent makeshift houses to restrict the fire. But the houses gutted had concrete structures. So, we could not extinguish the fire easily. Due to congestion, the fire spread easily from one house to another,” Abdullah told BenarNews., an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“We had to fight for three hours to put out the fire.”
Cause being investigated
A police official said the cause of the fire was still unknown, but the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) said that a faulty cooking gas cylinder may have ignited the blaze.
However, one refugee alleged that a gang of thieves lit her shelter on fire because they wanted to force her son to join in their activities.
“My house has no electricity connection or cooking gas cylinder. A group of robbers set my house on fire to scare me,” Mabia Khatun told BenarNews.
Mabia’s neighbor, Azim Ullah, said he knew about the threat.
“The fire spread very quickly. Many of the houses had gas cylinders. These cylinders exploded, further escalating the fire. And the fire went out of control,” said Ullah, whose home also burned down.
The Bangladesh government and other organizations had put in place fire-prevention measures at the camps and trained the refugee community in fire-safety practices, the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), said in a statement.
“The rapid and effective response today has shown how preparing together and engaging the refugee communities can help reduce the serious injuries and loss of life,” said ISCG, which provides humanitarian assistance to affected populations around the world.
The United Nations and other NGOs have supplied medical care, shelter kits, non-food items, winter clothes, and emergency food assistance to the affected refugee families, ISCG said.
These families are also temporarily being housed with relatives and in emergency accommodation, it added.
“We have been on the ground since very early in the morning,” Marin Din Kajdomcaj, of UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency, said in the ISCG statement.
UNHCR, other U.N. agencies, and NGOs were working together “to help people who have lost their homes and possessions during last night’s terrible fire in the refugee camp at Nayapara,” Din Kajdomcaj said.
The fire was “another ghastly reminder that children stuck in the camps in Cox’s Bazar face a bleak future with little freedom of movement, inadequate access to education, poverty, serious protection risks, and abuse including child marriage,” Save the Children’s van Manen said.
“Put simply, despite the relentless efforts of humanitarian communities, a refugee camp is no place for a child to grow up. This is why the international community must find a lasting and durable solution to the plight of the Rohingya.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.