At least 15 reported dead after 'massive, devastating' fire at Bangladesh Rohingya refugee camp

Hundreds of people are still unaccounted for, "maybe somewhere in the rubble" after a huge fire destroyed the shanty homes of tens of thousands of Rohingya in the world's biggest refugee settlement.

The UNHCR says 400 people are still unaccounted for and tens of thousands are displaced after a massive fire at a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh.

The UNHCR says 400 people are still unaccounted for and tens of thousands are displaced after a massive fire at a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. Source: LightRocket via Getty Images

At least 15 people have been killed in a massive fire that ripped through a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, while at least 400 remain missing, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.

"It is massive, it is devastating," said 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 the UNHCR had confirmed 15 people were dead, and there were reports of more than 550 people injured and about 45,000 displaced.

A view from the Balukhali Rohingya camp after a huge fire broken out in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on 22 March.
Source: Anadolu via Getty Images

Bangladesh police put the death toll lower at 11.

Bangladeshi officials are investigating the cause of the blaze even as emergency and aid workers and families sift through the debris looking for further victims. The fire ripped through the Balukhali camp near the southeastern town of Cox's Bazar late on Monday, burning through thousands of shanties as people scrambled to save their meagre possessions.

"Everything has gone. Thousands are without homes," Aman Ullah, a Rohingya refugee from the Balukhali camp, told Reuters. "The fire was brought under control after six hours but some parts of the camp could be seen smoking all night long."

"People ran for their lives as it spread fast. Many were injured and I saw at least four bodies," said Aminul Haq, a another refugee.

"I couldn't save any of our belongings as I was busy saving my children from the fire. We simply ran away from our house," said a third survivor, Nasima Khatun.

Some 40,000 huts in the camp were burned down, said Mohammad Mohsin, secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, after visiting the camp.

Two major hospitals of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and Turkish government were also destroyed, he told reporters in Cox's Bazar.

"A seven-member committee has been formed to investigate the matter," he said.

Rohingya refugees search for their belongings after a fire broke out at the Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp, Cox's Bazar.

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 and tens of thousands of people displaced.

More than a thousand Red Cross staff and volunteers worked with fire services to extinguish the blaze, spread over four sections of the camp containing roughly 124,000 people, he said. That represents around one-tenth of an estimated 1 million Rohingya refugees in the area, Mr Kafley said.

"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."

'Proper investigation needed' into cause of blaze

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 organisation 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.

A Rohingya family sits under an open sky after a huge fire swept through a Rohingya refugee camp in southern Bangladesh on Monday.
Source: LightRocket via Getty Images

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," Mr 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. 

Published 24 March 2021 at 10:13am, updated 24 March 2021 at 10:21am
Source: Reuters - SBS