A large fire ravaged a crowded Rohingya camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar area on Thursday, destroying hundreds of dilapidated shelters and forcing thousands of displaced Muslim refugees to flee in the cold winter.
The blaze claimed no lives but left hundreds of people homeless, aid workers and officials said. It struck at a time when Bangladesh officials are seeking long-term solutions for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have crossed its border from Myanmar in recent years.
The fire broke out at around 1 a.m. in the Nayapara refugee camp in south-eastern Bangladesh. Fire officials said the blaze was brought under control within two hours and they opened an investigation to determine the cause.
About 550 shelters have been lost, along with shops and other facilities, said the Intersectoral Coordination Group, a humanitarian organization that works with refugees who have gathered in Cox’s Bazar.
Residents said huge flames quickly spread from one edge and enveloped the entire camp. Some said firefighters struggled to put out the flames at first amid the chaos, as residents of neighboring camps also fled to escape the blaze.
“When I opened my eyes I saw fire everywhere,” said Haleema Khatoon, who lived in the camp with her two children and her husband and said she had lost everything in the blaze. “The sky turned red and smoke was everywhere.”
Ms Khatoon and others said confusion and delays may have doomed some shelters that could have been saved.
The Intersectoral Coordination Group said local firefighters arrived quickly and were able to contain the blaze. “We reached the area quickly and tried to put out the fire,” said Mohammad Abdullah, a fire official at Cox’s Bazar. “But the fire spread quickly and destroyed homes.”
Ms. Khatoon, 34, fled Rakhine State in 2017 and gave birth to her second child in the camp. She said she had turned her small hut into a home for her family. Now, she said, she and her family had no food and nowhere to go.
More than 730,000 Rohingya, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh since a campaign of murder, rape and arson began against them in 2017. The town of Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh, has become a makeshift home for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing the campaign of violence by the Burmese military. The Rohingya have been relentlessly persecuted by the government and crowds of Buddhists, who constitute the majority in Myanmar.
The settlements turned into mega camps as the huge influx of desperate people fleeing war or persecution continued to expand.
In May last year, a similar fire burned down more than 400 shelters in the nearby Kutupalang refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. And with a growing population and new shelters built over time, officials say it has become increasingly difficult for firefighters to navigate the slums.
Bangladeshi authorities say they are trying to reduce the population in some camps, with a plan to move 100,000 people to an island in the bay of bengal. Rights groups criticized the plan, saying the Rohingya were again forcibly displaced.
Mahbub Alam Talukdar, a Bangladeshi relief official, said Thursday’s fire broke out in Block E of Nayapara refugee camp and officials continue to assess the damage.
“The refugees have been transferred to another location and we are helping them with food and necessary items.” Said Mr. Talukdar. “We will try to rebuild their shelters quickly.”