Fire blazes through crowded Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh

At least 2,000 huts damaged in one of the 32 camps in Cox’s Bazar district that is home to more than 1.2 million people.

Clouds of black smoke filling the sky in the Balukhali refugee camp. There are orange flames consuming the wooden and bamboo huts
Flames tear through the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh [Ro Yassin Abdumonab/Reuters]

A massive fire raced through a crammed refugee camp for Rohingya people in southern Bangladesh, leaving thousands homeless, a fire official and the United Nations said.

Thousands of people lost their homes as the fire, which broke out on Sunday,  burned down or damaged at least 2,000 huts, officials from the Balukhali fire department told Al Jazeera.

The blaze hit Camp 11 in Cox’s Bazar, a border district where more than a million Rohingya refugees live, with most having fled a military-led crackdown in Myanmar in 2017.

(Al Jazeera)

Reporting from Dhaka, Al Jazeera’s Tanvir Chowdhury said Balukhali camp is one of the 32 camps in Cox’s Bazar.

“Each hut has four to five people living together as a family and at least half of the population is women and children,” Chowdhury said, adding that fire and rescue officials have not reported any casualties so far but they are still searching for people.

He explained that the region where the fire broke out is quite hilly, making it difficult for rescue teams to reach and for families to escape.

“The health facilities [in the area] are very rudimentary to have a fast response. There are a lot of field hospitals but not enough to respond to 1.2 million people,” he added.

The UN refugee agency’s Regina De La Portilla told Al Jazeera that most shelters in the camp are made with bamboo and tarpaulin.

“The materials we use in the camps are all temporary that can catch fire, and it spreads quickly due to the congested nature of the camps,” she said.

Dealing with trauma

Firefighters, assisted by local volunteers, were able to get the blaze under control, but Portilla said a third of the camp’s population had lost their homes and belongings and that the UN was providing mental healthcare services.

“We have deployed 90 community health workers [also refugees], who have been trained to provide first aid and psychological support, and if somebody needs further support they are referred to health services to deal with this type of mental trauma,” she said.

It is not clear what the affected refugees will do for shelter.

More than one million Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar over several decades, including about 740,000 who crossed the border starting in August 2017, when the Myanmar military launched a brutal crackdown.

Conditions in Myanmar have worsened since a military takeover in 2021, and attempts to send them back have failed.

Last year, the United States said the oppression of the Rohingya in Myanmar amounts to genocide after US authorities confirmed accounts of mass atrocities against civilians by the military in a systematic campaign against the ethnic minority.

The mostly Muslim Rohingya face widespread discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where most are denied citizenship and many other rights.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies