A devastating fire in the world’s largest refugee camp has left at least 12,000 Rohingya homeless, prompting fears that more of the community will attempt to flee Bangladesh by the perilous sea route.
On Sunday afternoon, a blaze started in one of 32 refugee camps in the town of Cox’s Bazar in south-eastern Bangladesh, quickly spreading through the bamboo and tarpaulin shelters used by its inhabitants.
While no deaths were reported at Camp 11, when the impoverished Rohingya returned to where their former makeshift homes had stood there was nothing but charred remains.
“I lost my shelter, my rations and all the documents I brought with me from Myanmar in the fire,” said Mohammed Haras, 33.
“Apart from my own children, we could not take anything with us from our shelter. We had to run to escape from the fire and my children are traumatised from facing these tragedies.”
Rohingya leaders speculated the blaze could have been started by organised criminal gangs operating in the lawless camps in an attempt to gain control over rival groups.
One person has allegedly been arrested by Bangladeshi authorities in connection with the incident.
Fires a common occurrence
Between January 2021 and December 2022, there were 222 reported fires within the camps in Cox’s Bazar and at least 60 of these were thought to have been arson attacks.
“The fire was not accidental but intentional,” said Mohammed Rezuwan Khan, a Rohingya activist in Cox’s Bazar, of the latest blaze.
“Overall, the situation here is getting much worse. So, most refugees are afraid of further arson attacks in different areas of the camp by the gangs.”
There are at least 1.2 million Rohingya living in Cox’s Bazar after fleeing military-led persecution in neighbouring Myanmar, where their community had lived for generations.
Conditions in Myanmar have worsened since a military takeover in 2021 and attempts to send back the refugees have failed.
In 2021, the US said the oppression of Rohingya in Myanmar amounted to genocide after authorities confirmed accounts of mass atrocities against civilians by the military in a systematic campaign against the ethnic minority.
The UNHCR said it would launch its Rohingya response plan for this year on Tuesday.
Bangladesh has long made it clear that it does not intend to house the Rohingya permanently and that position has hardened in recent months as Dhaka endures economic turbulence.
As a result, Bangladesh has cracked down on the Rohingya’s living conditions in the refugee camps, while aid agencies, including the World Food Programme, announced they were slashing food aid due to funding cuts.
Dhaka has already bulldozed Rohingya-run shops, closed hundreds of unofficial schools and limited movement, causing a surge in preventable deaths, particularly among pregnant women and those who had contracted water-borne disease.
“The consequences of the fire will be catastrophic for the Rohingya families living in Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, thousands of whom will now be forced to sleep under open skies, with no access to food, water or formal health support,” warned Adnan Junaid, Asia regional director at the International Rescue Committee.
Most concerningly, the camps have become lawless organised crime hubs — international drug smugglers, armed groups from Myanmar and human traffickers all operate freely.
Desperate journeys by boat on the increase
In January, Human Rights Watch warned that the living conditions for Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar were “impossible” and warned more people would attempt to flee Bangladesh.
Last year, more than 3,500 Rohingya attempted to reach South-east Asian countries by boat — Malaysia has, historically, allowed some Rohingya to settle in the country and work — and at least 350 people died en route.
This was a 360 per cent increase from 2021 in the number of Rohingya attempting to make the deadly crossing, usually on old fishing boats that are barely seaworthy, through the Bay of Bengal.
One boat with 180 Rohingya on board is thought to have sunk in December, while another vessel came ashore on the Indonesian island of Aceh with those on board reporting that more than 20 people had died during the journey from dehydration.
Rohingya community leaders, such as Mr Rezuwan Khan, fear that the rapid deterioration of their living standards in Cox’s Bazar and the increasing threat posed by organised crime will encourage more people to take to the sea.
“The sounds of bullets and the sights of flames mean the Rohingya don’t sleep at night," he said. "For many people it is better to flee this camp than to stay here.
“The sea is the one and only way for refugees to flee and so people will go wherever they can to try to save their life, despite the risks involved.”