The United Nations confirmed Tuesday that at least 15 people had died in a massive fire at a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh a day earlier, while a local NGO said it was looking for more than 100 missing children.
Hundreds of refugees were injured and tens of thousands more rendered homeless after the fire swept through the densely populated Balukhali camp in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district before it was put out on Monday, said UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency.
“[Fifteen] refugees are confirmed to have tragically lost their lives in the fire. More than 560 have been injured and an estimated 400 people are still missing,” Johannes van der Klaauw, UNHCR’s representative in Dhaka, told a press briefing in Geneva, according to a statement from the agency.
The fire gutted 10,000 makeshift shelters and left 45,000 refugees homeless, he said.
Bangladesh officials confirmed 11 deaths and said they were searching for children reported missing after the fire, which took firefighters eight hours to extinguish.
“We have handed over the recovered bodies to police. We are receiving reports of missing children from Rohingya camp leaders. We are carrying out rescue operations very seriously and locals are helping us,” Hossain told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
The cause of the fire is yet to be determined, officials said. The Bangladesh government has set up an eight-member inquiry committee to investigate the cause.
BRAC, the largest NGO in Bangladesh, said it had launched an operation to help find missing refugee children.
“The families have reported 150 missing children. We have so far found three kids and handed them over to their respective families after proper identification,” Sohel Rana, an official manning a BRAC booth at the camp, told BenarNews.
“We have over a hundred workers to search for the children. We are working to find the children from 10 to 18 years old,” he said.
Officials said the fire was the worst in four years to strike one of the refugee camps in around Cox’s Bazar, where 1 million Rohingya are sheltering. These include more than 740,000 who fled a brutal military crackdown in neighboring Myanmar in 2017.
“We have lost everything. I am here along with our one-year-old boy and three-year-old girl, sitting in the scorching sun. My husband is missing since yesterday. The children are crying for food,” Dilankis Begum, one of the refugees whose shelter was gutted, told BenarNews.
High winds fanned Monday’s fire after it broke out in the afternoon, government officials said.
And making matters worse was a barbed-wire fence almost fully built around the congested and densely populated refugee camps, according to international NGOs and other humanitarian groups, which called on Bangladesh to take down the fencing.
The Bangladesh government must immediately stop work on the fence, said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
“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,” Egeland tweeted.
“We call on the Government of Bangladesh to review their decision to fence these camps, halt all fence construction going forward and find a safer, more humane alternative.”
In another message posted on Twitter, Matthew Smith, co-founder of Fortify Rights, an NGO that works closely with Rohingya refugees, said “those same fences may have cost refugees’ lives in a devastating fire today.”
Refugees International, another NGO, said the barbed-wire fence was especially daunting to children.
“Many children are missing, and some were unable to flee because of barbed-wire set up in the camps,” the group said in a statement late on Monday.
Bangladeshi officials had said in January that the government’s installation of barbed-wire fencing around Rohingya camps – to confine the stateless refugees from Myanmar to their settlements in Cox’s Bazar – was almost complete and would be finished by June.
The barbed-wire fence would keep the Rohingya safe and secure and would also deter their “criminal activities,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal had told BenarNews last month.
‘Reliving the devastation experienced in Myanmar’
In the fire’s aftermath on Tuesday, refugees could be seen crying and scavenging for any belongings that may have survived the blaze.
“My 6-year-old sister Ammuni died. She rushed to the room of my father-in-law and got trapped,” Nur Kamal told BenarNews as tears rolled down her face.
Others spoke of missing family and neighbors.
“Forty people of our block are missing. Food, water and shelter are scarce,” Rohingya leader Sultan Ahmad told BenarNews.
A Rohingya boy stands in front of a portion of the refugee camp that was destroyed in a massive fire on Monday in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, March 23, 2021. [Abdur Rahman/BenarNews]
One refugee from the camp told Refugees International that “the tragedy of the fire felt like reliving the devastation the Rohingya experienced in Myanmar in 2017.”
Sanjeev Kumar Kafley, Bangladesh head for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, also spoke about the seemingly unending misery the Rohingya refugees were facing.
“This is a terrible blow to some of the most resilient people on Earth. Many people fled to Bangladesh after having their homes burnt to the ground. After setting up a new life, thousands now face more hardship and uncertainty,” Kafley said in a statement on Tuesday.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.