A fire tore through a Rohingya refugee camp in south-east Bangladesh on Sunday, destroying hundreds of shelters and forcing refugees to break through wire fencing to reach safety.
“About 1,200 houses were burned in the fire,” said Kamran Hossain, a spokesperson for the Armed Police Battalion, which heads security in the camp.
The fire started in camp 16 and raced through shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulin, leaving more than 5,000 people homeless, he told Agence France-Presse.
The incident has renewed calls for the fencing that encages refugees to be removed.
The settlement hosts more than a million people and is the world’s largest refugee camp. Most of those living in it were forced to flee Myanmar in 2017, when the military launched a brutal crackdown against the minority, which a UN report later said was carried out with “genocidal intent”.
Mohammad Rofique, 30, who lives in a shelter close to where the fire started, told the Guardian he was forced to break through wire fencing that surrounds the camp to save his family. He managed to rescue his daughter, wife and his parents.
“My family is safe but my house is totally burned down. I have lost everything. I could not save any material or any goods that I own. As it is winter, people will suffer a lot,” he said, adding that people should be given new housing as quickly as possible.
Fires are a continual hazard in Cox’s Bazar, where more than one million people live in extremely crowded conditions, with bamboo and tarpaulin shelters packed closely together, surrounded by fencing.
In March 2021, a huge fire swept through another area of the camp, killing at least 15 people, and burning more than 10,000 shelters. The blaze was exacerbated by wire fencing, which trapped refugees, and which rights groups have urged the Bangladeshi government to remove.
After the fire, some residents formed nighttime patrols to protect their communities, fearing another deadly blaze.
Mohammad Yasin, 29, a resident of the camp, told the Agence France-Presse news agency that while fires occurred frequently, there was no way for communities to tackle Sunday’s blaze.
“There was no way we could put out the fire. There was no water. My home is burned. Many documents, which I brought from Myanmar, are also burned,” he said.
Sunday’s fire comes a week after another blaze broke out at a Covid isolation and treatment centre run by the International Organization For Migration (IOM).
Roberto Vila-Sexto, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director in Bangladesh, said he feared future fires could cause greater destruction.
“We need to provide safe, dignified shelter for refugees using fire-retardant material, and the dangerous barbed-wire fencing should be removed that divides the camps and slows the escape of people fleeing the flames,” he said.
IOM said it was assessing the scale of the damage caused by the latest blaze. “We are coordinating with other humanitarian actors to ensure that those affected are provided with food, health, protection, water, sanitation, and hygiene needs,” said Nusrath Ghazzali, the officer-in-charge for IOM Bangladesh.