DHAKA/GENEVA – At least 15 people have been killed and around 400 are missing after a massive fire in the Rohingya refugee camp in southeastern Bangladesh, the United Nations said on Tuesday, calling it an unprecedented disaster.
Boris Cheshirkov, the spokesperson for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a press conference that such a massive fire had never been seen at a refugee camp before.
The fire broke out around 3:20 pm Monday in Balukhali area in Cox’s Bazar district and was brought under control early Tuesday, the regional fire service chief, Shahadat Hossain, told EFE.
According to the UN, around 88,000 refugees lived in the affected area, and over 45,000 are estimated to have lost their modest belongings in the tragedy as at least 10,000 shelters were destroyed.
The number of casualties could rise further and the causes of the fire are not clear yet, according to various UN bodies.
More than 1,000 volunteers of nonprofit Red Crescent also worked throughout the night along with the firefighters to try and put out the fire.
Some of the first people to respond to the emergency were around 600 residents of the camp who had been trained for search and rescue operations during cyclones that often strike the region.
World Food Programme spokesperson Thomson Piri said that frontline workers had informed the agency of “horrible” scenes of devastation, and refugees may have lost everything again barely three years after having to flee their houses in neighboring Myanmar due to persecution.
In Bangladesh, 30-year-old Rohingya refugee Jomadila Begum told EFE that when she rushed to the camp site after hearing about the fire, she saw “a huge fire and people weeping and running for safety.”
“My brother-in-law’s shelter burned down and he lost chicken worth 35,000 taka (around $400) as his poultry shop was completely destroyed,” said Begum, adding that her mother-in-law had to be hospitalized due to the shock she received by the tragedy.
A video shared on social media showed thick columns of smoke rising from the blazing shanties, as firefighters and volunteers struggled to control the fire and evacuate the refugees.
Shamsul Alam, another Rohingya refugee, told EFE that the fire also destroyed a hospital, distribution centers and facilities run by nonprofits along with houses of many Bangladeshi people near the camp.
The highly congested camps in Cox’s Bazar are susceptible to mishaps due to lack of planning and fragile infrastructure with makeshift huts made of wood, bamboo and plastic.
In January, another fire left around 3,500 Rohingyas without a shelter, as more than 500 huts were destroyed.
However, there have also been concerns about fires being deliberately set. In January, UNICEF flagged the deliberate burning of four educational centers for Rohingyas.
Nearly 738,000 Rohingya refugees are living in camps in Bangladesh since Aug. 25, 2017, following a wave of persecution and military crackdown in neighboring Myanmar that the UN described as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing and possible genocide.