KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh — A massive fire ripped through the Rohingya refugee camps in southeastern Bangladesh on Sunday, displacing about 12,000 people, authorities said.
The fire, which started around 2 p.m., consumed several thousand bamboo and tarpaulin shelters, as well as facilities like hospitals and schools, until it was put out by Rohingya and Bangladeshi firefighters around 5:30 p.m., local authorities said. Some residents suffered minor injuries, but no casualties were reported as of Monday afternoon. It was not immediately clear what caused the fire.
Abu Taher, 25, was away from his shelter in camp 11 when the fire broke out, sending plumes of black smoke into the sky. By the time he ran back, everything he owned had been burned, including his family’s refugee identification documents and food ration cards, he said.
He choked back tears as he returned Monday afternoon to his camp, which had been reduced to a blanket of ash. Other families wandered through the debris around him, searching for remnants of their belongings. “I couldn’t even save a longyi to wear,” Taher said, referring to a type of traditional sarong.
The refugees who have been displaced are being housed with relatives in other parts of the sprawling camp or put up in community centers, said Regina de la Portilla, spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangladesh. U.N. agencies and Bangladeshi government officials have begun conducting an assessment to determine how many shelters need to be rebuilt.
“If the materials are available, which we hope they are, it’ll be quite a fast process,” de la Portilla said. “The problem is the funds.”
For the first time since 2017, the World Food Program cut food rations for the Rohingya last week, citing inadequate funding. Humanitarian aid to the Rohingya response has been declining since 2021 and is expected to fall even further this year.
Aid agencies and officials from donor countries like the United States have for years asked Bangladesh for permission to upgrade the camp’s shelters with structures that are better at resisting heavy rains during the monsoon season and fires during the dry season. The government has consistently rejected that appeal, saying the shelters don’t need to be upgraded because they are meant to be temporary.
“I can’t see any future living in the camp unless we have brick walls and steel roofs,” said Nur Ahammed, 67, who lost his home and his small convenience store in the fire. Life in the camps had already been dire, he added. Being forced to sleep under open skies — “there is no word to describe our suffering,” he said.
In 2021, more than 50,000 refugees were displaced and 15 people killed after a huge blaze spread through the camps.
Tan reported from Singapore.