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After the latest blaze in their lawless refugee complex, Rohingya ask: Where’s the support?

‘Our safety and security are not guaranteed in the camp, and we are exposed to perils.’

A bird's eye view showing a group of Rohingya refugees work on rebuilding their makeshift shelters after a fire broke out in a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, January 7, 2024. Ro Yassin Abdumonab/Reuters
Rohingya refugees rebuild their makeshift shelters after a fire tore through their camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on 7 January 2024.

The blaze that ripped through the world’s largest refugee camp early on 7 January, displacing nearly 7,000 Rohingya refugees, has renewed concerns over the lack of emergency services and broader assistance amid growing insecurity in the gang-ridden Kutupalong complex.

The fires roared across Camp 5, one of the 33 settlements in the complex near Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, destroying some 800 bamboo and tarpaulin shelters and 120 public facilities, including mosques, health facilities, and education centres.

There were no reports of casualties, but those displaced – among almost 1 million Rohingya refugees living in Kutupalong and surrounding camps who have fled violence and religious persecution in their native Myanmar since 2017 – questioned the lack of support as many lost most of the little they had.

Panicked families took any belongings they could and ran to a nearby football field after the fires broke out at around 1am. Rohingya volunteers were joined by local Bangladeshi firefighters from the Ukhia borough to fight the blaze, which came only days after a New Year’s Eve fire destroyed more than 20 shelters in Camp 11.

Camp residents told The New Humanitarian that movement restrictions enforced by the authorities due to Bangladesh’s 7 January general elections led to more people choosing to stay home and go to sleep earlier, making them less alert at the time of the fire.

“We were asleep early when suddenly people started shouting 'Fire! Fire!' in Block A,” said Jahid, a 31-year-old humanitarian worker who lives in Camp 5. “I rushed out of the shelter, and the fire spread rapidly with the wind speed due to the thatch roof in the shelters.”

Jahid said he evacuated his elderly parents and his children to the football field, where they were left trembling in the cold for several hours. His children are among 4,200 children who have been rendered homeless by the latest blaze to hit the settlements.

Though the cause of last weekend’s inferno has yet to be determined, residents said arson is often used as a weapon by local gangs whose extortion rackets have led to rising insecurity in the camps. A 2023 investigation by Bangladesh’s Ministry of Defense classified 60 of the 222 fires that had broken out in the camps in the two preceding years as sabotage.

Lack of support, equipment

Though the camp’s volunteers were quick to respond, residents said they lacked the proper equipment to deal with such a large fire and assist survivors at the same time. 

Tarek Anan, 23, said the size and brightness of the flames left him paralysed in fear as he awoke. “There was fire everywhere I looked, and I couldn’t see any path to run away," Anan said. “I was so confused I couldn’t figure out whether I should carry out our belongings, evacuate my family, or go help extinguish the fire.”

Others say that camp authorities, who have been accused of mistreatment and abuse of refugees in the past, are not doing enough to ensure that the Rohingya are given access to basic assistance and emergency services, especially considering the fact the camp has faced more than 300 fires over the last six years.

“Our safety and security are not guaranteed in the camp, and we are exposed to perils.”

Omar Khan, a 35-year-old teacher

The UN said it deployed six three-wheeler mobile firefighting units (MFFUs), from different camps, but the hilly geography added to the difficulty of reaching the area. Strong winds, a lack of water in the dry season that meant rescue workers found their fire hydrants quickly depleting, and a lack of proper roads in hilly areas all increased the challenges.

Omar Khan, a 35-year-old teacher, said the camp’s authorities are responsible for the scale of the devastation.

"Our safety and security are not guaranteed in the camp, and we are exposed to perils,” Khan told The New Humanitarian.“We couldn't sleep at night because of repeated fire incidents.” 

Save the Children called on the Bangladeshi government to put greater urgency into their fire prevention efforts in the camp, including creating more space for shelters, using more fire-resistant building materials and improving evacuation procedures.

Gangs operating with impunity

Camp authorities have been criticised for failing to take proper action against increasing gang and criminal activity in the Kutupalong complex, including abductions and extortion schemes. The camps have also become a haven for about a dozen armed groups.

Residents accused the camp authorities of negligence, and of not taking their fears seriously.

Mohammad Zubair, 21, said there had already been two attempted arsons near his home in Camp 5 since the 7 January blaze – a fact he said highlighted the ineffectiveness of camp officials.

“Now, we, the refugee community, have to serve as watchdogs in our blocks in the cold winter nights,” Zubair said.

The destruction of more than 800 shelters meant clothing, blankets, and rations belonging to thousands of families also went up in flames.

“I am approaching the age of death, but still calamity has not left me alone. I’ve spent the entire 50 years of my adult life living in this broken state.”

Aman Sahir, 65, refugee living in camp

Camp residents told The New Humanitarian that recovery would be harder as recent budgetary concerns at the World Food Programme meant they were seeing a 66% decrease in their monthly assistance.

Aman Sahir, 65, lives alone in the camp and was especially concerned about how she would manage to rebuild her life.

"My rations, clothes, and blankets are burnt. I haven't eaten a thing,” Sahir said. “I’m sitting here with just some half-burnt stuff.”

Many displaced survivors were either relocated to other areas of the camp complex with their relatives or given temporary shelters, but, as a single woman, Sahir said she had gone mostly unnoticed by volunteers and aid groups.

“I am approaching the age of death, but still calamity has not left me alone,” she said. “I’ve spent the entire 50 years of my [adult] life living in this broken state.”

Save the Children said displaced families of up to 10 people have had to relocate to spaces the size of a small camping tent. The fires, said the UK-based charity, “are a tragic reminder of the deteriorating conditions in the camps”.

The fires have only compounded the many fears of the 1.2 million people who call the Kutupalong camp complex home. Not only are there increased reports of abuse and hostility towards Rohingya refugees in both Bangladesh and Indonesia, but intensifying conflict between the ruling junta and an array of armed opposition groups has led to a new surge of displacement in their home country, Myanmar.

Edited by Ali M. Latifi and Tom Brady.

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