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 United Nations refugee agency said.
“It is massive, it is devastating,” said the UNHCR’s Johannes van der Klaauw, who joined a Geneva briefing virtually from Dhaka on Tuesday.
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“We still have 400 people unaccounted for, maybe somewhere in the rubble,” he said, adding that the UNHCR has reports of 560 people injured and 45,000 people displaced.
Bangladeshi officials said they are investigating the cause of the massive fire as officials sifted through the debris looking for more victims.
The fire ripped through the Balukhali camp near the southeastern town of Cox’s Bazar late on Monday, burning through thousands of huts as people scrambled to save their meagre possessions.
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”, a charge Myanmar denies.
Police Inspector Gazi Salahuddin said the fire – the biggest in the cramped settlements since 2017 – ripped through flimsy bamboo-and-tarpaulin shelters and grew after cylinders of cooking gas exploded.
Mohammad Yasin, a Rohingya helping fight the fire, told AFP news agency the blaze raged for more than 10 hours and was the worst he had seen.
“People ran for their lives as it spread fast. Many were injured and I saw at least four bodies,” said Aminul Haq, a refugee.
A volunteer for Save the Children, Tayeba Begum, said: “Children were running, crying for their families.”
“The cause of the fire is still unknown,” Zakir Hossain Khan, a senior police official, told Reuters news agency by telephone from the camps. “Authorities are investigating to determine the cause of the fire.”
Sanjeev Kafley, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies delegation in Bangladesh, said more than 17,000 shelters had been destroyed in the blaze, and tens of thousands of people had been displaced.
The fire spread over four sections of the camp housing roughly 124,000 people, about one-tenth of the more than one 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.”
Calls to remove barbed wires
Some witnesses said the barbed wire fencing around the camp trapped many people, hurting some and leading international humanitarian agencies to call for its removal.
Humanitarian organisation Refugees International, which estimated that 50,000 people had been displaced by the fire, 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.”
Third fire in four days
It was the third blaze to hit the camps in four days, fire brigade official Sikder, who only goes by one name, told AFP.
Two separate fires at the camps on Friday destroyed scores of shelters, officials said. Two big fires had also hit the camps in January, leaving thousands homeless and gutting four UNICEF schools.
Amnesty International’s South Asia campaigner, Saad Hammadi, tweeted that the “frequency of fire in the camps is too coincidental, especially when outcomes of previous investigations into the incidents are not known and they keep repeating”.
“It is not clear why these fire incidents are happening repeatedly in the camps. It needs proper and complete investigation,” Rohingya leader Sayed Ullah said.
The government has meanwhile been pushing for the refugees to be relocated to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, saying the settlements were too crowded.
So far, 13,000 Rohingya have been moved to the flood-prone island, which critics say is also in the path of deadly cyclones.