15 dead, 400 missing in Rohingya camp fire

COX’S BAZAR, BANGLADESH (AFP)- Fifteen people have died and 400 are missing after a huge fire destroyed the shanty homes of tens of thousands of Rohingya in the world’s biggest refugee settlement in Bangladesh, the United Nations (UN) said yesterday.

Nearly one million people – many of whom escaped a 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar that UN investigators concluded was executed with “genocidal intent” – live in squalid conditions at the network of camps in the southeastern Cox’s Bazar district. The fire broke out on Monday and left at least 50,000 people homeless as it ripped through their flimsy bamboo-and-tarpaulin shelters, according to police and aid groups.

Terrified families fled with whatever they could carry, with distraught children separated from their children in the rush.

It was just the latest blaze in recent weeks – and the biggest since 2017. Bangladesh has ordered a probe.

“People ran for their lives as it spread fast. Many were injured and I saw at least four bodies,” said Aminul Haq, a refugee.

Onlookers gather at a Rohingya refugee camp in Ukhia. PHOTO: AFP

Johannes Van der Klaauw, the UN Refugee Agency’s representative in Bangladesh, said that so far it has confirmed 15 people dead, 560 injured, 400 missing and at least 10,000
shelters destroyed.

“What we have seen in this fire is something we have never seen before in these camps. It is massive. It is devastating,” Van der Klaauw told reporters in Geneva via videolink.

Officials said the blaze appeared to have started in one of the 34 camps – which span about 3,200 hectares of land – before spreading rapidly to three other sites despite desperate efforts to put out the flames.

Thick columns of smoke could be seen billowing from blazing shanties in a video shared on social media, as hundreds of firefighters and aid workers pulled refugees to safety. Firefighters finally brought the blaze under control around midnight.

Police inspector Gazi Salahuddin said the fire grew after gas cylinders used for cooking exploded.

Mohammad Yasin, a Rohingya helping with the firefight, told AFP the blaze raged for more than 10 hours and was the worst he had seen. A volunteer for Save the Children, Tayeba Begum, said “children were running, crying for their families”.

Refugees International said in a statement, “Many children are missing, and some were unable to flee because of barbed-wire set up in the camps.”