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Rohingya camp fire: Barbed-wire fences blocked escape, witnesses say

‘There was nowhere to run.’

A smokey view of a part of the Cox Bazar refugee camp damaged by a large fire.
People search for their belongings on 23 March, 2021, after a fire burned down all the shelters in a part of the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Ro Yassin Abdumonab/REUTERS)

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Kilometres of barbed-wire fencing surrounding Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps may have blocked people from fleeing a massive blaze that burnt thousands of shelters to the ground, witnesses say.

Aid groups are still tallying the destruction from the 22 March fire, which spread rapidly across bamboo-and-tarpaulin tent homes in parts of four conjoined camps at the sprawling Kutupalong complex near Cox’s Bazar.

Early assessments on Tuesday found 15 people died, at least 10,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, and more than 45,000 people were displaced. Two children are among the dead, according to aid agency BRAC, and casualties are expected to rise. At least 400 people were initially listed as missing.

Mujif Khan, a 24-year-old living in a nearby camp, said he rushed to the fire on Monday, trying to douse the flames with other volunteers.

“When the fire caught the shelters, the children and older people couldn’t run out of the camps due to the fencing,” he told The New Humanitarian by phone. “There was nowhere to run.”

Rights groups say the government has erected at least 28 kilometres of barbed-wire fencing and watchtowers around the largest parts of the camps, which are home to some 900,000 Rohingya refugees originally from Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

The fencing also slowed help from arriving, said another Rohingya refugee who witnessed the blaze. He said there were few entrances or gates in the section he was at, which meant desperate relatives and Bangladeshi fire services had trouble getting in.

“It was difficult for the fire services to enter the camps. The gate was really far, so it took a long time,” said the 26-year-old, who asked not to be named as he considered the issue to be sensitive. 

“People could not get near the fire because of the wire fence,” he said. “When people could not get to the fire, then how could they save their neighbours?”

John Quinley, a rights specialist with Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights, said aid workers and Rohingya also told him the fences made it difficult to evacuate, though it wasn’t yet clear how significant an obstacle they were.

“At minimum, it created a backlog to people leaving the camps,” he said. 

Even before Monday’s fire, the fences and checkpoints often made it harder to reach health clinics or other aid services, and there were calls from Rohingya and rights groups to remove them. 

“Women that need to go to hospitals to give birth are having to cross checkpoints while pregnant, and having to negotiate with the military or police to get services in clinics and hospitals across the street,” Quinley said.

“People could not get near the fire because of the wire fence.”

Myanmar’s military is accused of genocide for its persecution of the Rohingya, including the violent purge of more than 700,000 people in 2017. Bangladesh’s government has offered safety to Rohingya for decades, but imposes heavy restrictions aimed at preventing them from integrating. Rohingya aren’t allowed to work or attend formal schools, and are barred from leaving the camps without permission. 

“The main objective of erecting the fences is to ensure that the Rohingyas do not leave the camp and join our community,” Bangladesh’s home affairs minister, Asaduzzaman Khan, told reporters last year.

In recent months, authorities have also transferred thousands of Rohingya to Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island on the Bay of Bengal. Most Rohingya say they want to return home to Myanmar, but it’s unsafe to do so – especially since a 1 February military coup that has destabilised the country.

‘Burnt to the ground’

Monday’s blaze was the latest – and by far the largest – to hit different parts of the camps in recent months. A January fire destroyed 550 shelters home to some 3,500 people, aid groups reported.

The cause of Monday’s fire is still under investigation. An early report from BRAC suggested an exploding gas cylinder may have been responsible. Rohingya households receive cylinders of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking fuel as part of their aid supplies.

Aid groups say the fire destroyed a number of facilities, including several health clinics, food distribution centres, and a market. The UN’s migration agency, IOM, said its largest health clinic in the camp was “completely destroyed”. The World Food Programme said two of its nutrition centres and a food distribution site were “burnt to the ground”.

The fire left tens of thousands homeless overnight. Some have taken shelter with friends or family in neighbouring camps, and aid groups have opened up other facilities to house others.

On Tuesday, many families returned to salvage what they could from the charred remains of their homes, said the 26-year-old Rohingya refugee, who had come to offer help.

“People lost all their belongings – everything,” he said. “They’re running around from here to there. The fire has left these people homeless.”

il/ag

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