UN says 15 dead, 400 missing in Rohingya camp fire

The fire at the Balukhali camp near the south-eastern town of Cox's Bazar.
The fire at the Balukhali camp near the south-eastern town of Cox's Bazar.PHOTO: REUTERS

DHAKA/GENEVA (REUTERS) - At least 15 people have been killed in a massive fire that ripped through a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, while 400 remain missing, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday (March 23). 

“It is massive, it is devastating,” said the UNHCR’s Johannes van der Klaauw, who joined a Geneva briefing virtually from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

“We still have 400 people unaccounted for, maybe somewhere in the rubble,” he said.  He added that the UNHCR has reports of 560 people injured and 45,000 people displaced. 

Bangladeshi officials are investigating the cause of the fire.

The blaze ripped through the Balukhali camp near the southeastern town of Cox’s Bazar late on Monday, burning through thousands of hutments as people scrambled to save their meagre possessions.

Police earlier confirmed seven deaths.

“We have information of seven people that died in the fire.  Among them, three children were buried last night. Today four bodies were recovered .... all burnt beyond recognition,” said Zakir Hossain Khan, a senior police official. 

“The cause of the fire is still unknown,” Khan told Reuters by telephone from the camps. “Authorities are investigating to determine the cause of the fire.” 

Sanjeev Kafley, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’s delegation head in Bangladesh, said more than 17,000 shelters had been destroyed in the blaze, and tens of thousands had been displaced.  

The fire spread over four sections of the camp containing roughly 124,000 people, around one-tenth of the more than 1 million Rohingya refugees in the area, he added.

“I have been in Cox’s Bazar for three and a half years and have never seen such a fire,” he told Reuters. “These people have been displaced two times. For many there is nothing left.” 

In a statement, the IFRC said the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society has launched one of its biggest ever rescue and relief efforts in the camp settlement in Cox’s Bazar. 

More than 1,000 Red Crescent staff and volunteers worked through the night with fire fighters, camp residents and other agencies to rescue people and douse the flames. 

“It is heart breaking to see how destructive a fire can be in such a short time," said M.A. Halim, Head of Operations in Cox’s Bazar for the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society.

“We are providing relief through food and water, and erecting emergency shelters for people who have lost their homes. These devastating fires will require even greater efforts by all agencies in the coming weeks, particularly as the cyclone season approaches.” 

Some witnesses said that barbed wire fencing around the camp trapped many people, hurting some and leading international humanitarian agencies to call for its removal.  

Humanitarian organization Refugees International, which estimated 50,000 people had been displaced, said the extent of the damage may not be known for some time.

“Many children are missing, and some were unable to flee because of barbed wire set up in the camps,” it said in a statement. 

John Quinley of Fortify Rights, a rights organisation working with Rohingya, said he had heard similar reports, adding the fences had hampered the distribution of humanitarian aid and vital services at the camps in the past. 

“The government must remove the fences and protect refugees,” Quinley said. “There have now been a number of large fires in the camps including a large fire in January this year... The authorities must do a proper investigation into the cause of the fires.” 

The vast majority of the people in the camps fled Myanmar in 2017 amid a military-led crackdown on the Rohingya that UN  investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent”, charges Myanmar denies.