DHAKA – A massive fire swept through a Rohingya refugee camp in southern Bangladesh on Monday, destroying thousands of homes and killing several people, officials and witnesses said, in the worst flame to hit the settlement in recent years.
Videos and photos showed a flame racing through the Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar. Black smoke rose over burning huts and tents as people struggled to regain their possessions.
“Fire, rescue and response teams and volunteers are on hand to try to control the fire and prevent it from spreading,” said Louise Donovan, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Cox’s Bazar.
Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy government official in charge of refugees in Bangladesh, said authorities were trying to control the fire.
Rohingya refugees in the camps said many houses had burned down and several people died, but neither the authorities nor the UNHCR could confirm the number of deaths. The cause of the fire is unknown.
More than a million Rohingya live in the camps in southern Bangladesh. The vast majority fled Myanmar in 2017.
Zaifur Hussein, a 50-year-old refugee who escaped the fire but lost his home and sought refuge with friends, believed dozens may have been killed and that the encampments were fenced off to make escape difficult.
“When we were in Myanmar we had a lot of problems … they destroyed everything,” he said. “Now it’s happened again.”
Snigdha Chakraborty, director of Catholic relief services in Bangladesh, said she was concerned about the lack of medical facilities in the area.
“Medical facilities are simple and burns require sophisticated treatment. Also, hospital beds in COVID-19 patients are already partially occupied,” she said. “Most likely there will be deaths because the fire is so big.”
A Rohingya leader in Cox’s Bazar, a piece of land bordering Myanmar in southeastern Bangladesh, said he saw several bodies.
“Thousands of huts were totally burned down,” Mohammed Nowkhim told Reuters.
Another major fire broke through the camp in January, destroying houses but causing no casualties.
The risk of fire in the densely populated camps is high, and Monday’s fire was the largest to date, said Onno Van Manen, country director of Save the Children in Bangladesh.
“It is another devastating blow to the Rohingya refugees who live here. A few days ago we lost one of our health facilities in another fire,” he said.
UNHCR said humanitarian partners had mobilized hundreds of volunteers from nearby camps for the support operation, as well as fire fighting vehicles and equipment.