Rohingya refugees fear ‘another disaster waiting to happen’ after 84 fires in four months
Rohingya refugees living in in the Cox’s Bazar camps in Bangladesh are fearing for their lives after seven more fires broke out since Sunday, taking the total number of fires to 84 in just four months, according to data from the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG)[i]
There have now been more fires in the world’s largest refugee settlement since the start of 2021 than in the whole of the previous year, when 82 fires were reported. Ten fires were reported in one single day this year, on 29th March.
A major fire broke out in the camps on Monday 12 April, destroying eight family shelters along with a mosque, a women’s centre and a children’s learning centre. The incident was the 45th fire since the deadly blaze that ripped through the camps on 22nd March, which killed 11 and left more than 45,000 refugees homeless.
Frightened Rohingya refugees have formed patrols to watch for fires at night in order to protect children and loved ones and fight the fires as they occur. They fear it is only a matter of time before another major blaze tears through their homes.
Abdullah, a Rohingya humanitarian volunteer living in one of the camps said: "We are exhausted by all of the fires happening here… We can't sleep at night because we are afraid of fires. It is making us sick. Some people were working but they have had to stop because of the number of fires – they are afraid to go out and leave their families at home.”
"We are even more afraid of what may happen during Ramadan. As per the government directives to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, we have had to close all the shops in the evening and all the adults will go to pray at night, leaving women and children alone at home. It isn’t safe."
The reason for the sudden increase in fires remains unknown, but is thought to be in part because of a longer dry season which has caused the camp’s flammable bamboo shelters to be even more susceptible to catching fire. An investigation by the Bangladesh authorities is still underway to identify the cause of the massive fire that wreaked havoc on 22 March.
As well as being concerned for the physical safety of children, who make up around half of the refugee population in Cox’s Bazar, Save the Children is seriously worried about the mental health of children affected by the fires. Mental health workers report that some children are showing signs of being re-traumatised by the fires, as it reminds them of their burning homes in Myanmar. Children are refusing to eat or play, and some are unable to sleep and have been waking up and running away, believing their homes are on fire.
Onno van Manen, Country Director of Save the Children in Bangladesh said:
“The risk of fires in these densely populated and confined camps is enormous, and with fires erupting in the camps on almost a daily basis, another deadly disaster could just be waiting to happen.”
“As well as the loss of life and enormous destruction that these fires leave behind, we’re deeply concerned about the mounting impact of these traumatic events on children’s mental health. The Rohingya refugees have already fled their burning villages in Myanmar, only to see what little they have left go up in flames again. This is more any human – and certainly any child – should have to deal with in a lifetime. It stands as a ghastly reminder that children stuck in these camps face a bleak future. Put simply, a refugee camp is no place for a child to grow up.”
The camp in Cox’s Bazar is the world’s most densely populated refugee settlement and Rohingya refugees live in temporary shelters made of dry, flammable bamboo. Refugees have lived in these hazardous conditions for nearly four years and will continue to live here until they can safely and voluntarily return to Myanmar, Save the Children said.
Save the Children is calling for collaboration between authorities and humanitarians to prevent fires breaking out and to rebuild the damaged shelters immediately so people will have a roof over their heads and children can go to school. The refugee camps must be made safer by creating more space for shelters and maintaining fire-resistance measures water reservoirs and pathways through the fencing around the camps that allow people to flee in case of fires, and provide access to emergency services.
The agency is also calling for comprehensive evacuation plans to ensure refugees including children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities can get to safety in the event of a major fire or other disasters.
In collaboration with the Government and other actors, Save the Children is supporting children and their families with temporary safe shelters, health care, mental health services, food, clothes and other necessary household items. It is also working to reunify and support children separated from their parents and reconstruct the shelters and facilities destroyed by the fires.
New content available:
Various families in the aftermath of the fire, photos:
Junayed*, 7, B-roll, case study and photos:
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Charlotte Rose, Charlotte.Rose@savethechildren.org
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NOTES TO EDITORS
Data on fire outbreaks is taken from the Inter-Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) daily incident report on Thursday 15 April. The data is collected by Site Management and Site Development (SMSD) agencies, which collect information across all camps in Cox’s Bazar affected by fire, traffic and weather-related incidents.
[i] The Inter-Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) is the central coordination body for humanitarian agencies serving Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.