Hundreds of people are missing with at least 15 confirmed dead, including three children, after a fire tore through a camp for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
The toll was exacerbated by barbed wire fencing that caged refuges into areas of the sprawling Balukhali camp that were going up in flames, aid workers said.
“This tragic event could have been less disastrous had barbed wire fencing not been erected encircling the camps,” said Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“NRC staff have heard horrific accounts from refugees about their scramble to cut through the wire fences to save their families, escape the fire and reach safety.”
Camp residents wept as they searched for missing loved ones or picked through the charred rubble of their homes to try to salvage any remaining possessions after the blaze died down on Monday.
“Yesterday before the fire started, my kids went to study at the Islamic school. I did not see them after they came back. I found two of my older kids but I still can’t find my youngest son,” said Shappuni, a Rohingya refugee who uses only one name.
About half of the refugees at the camp were children, who were particularly at risk in the wake of the fire, Unicef said, including some who had been injured and separated from their families. Hospitals and schools were among the structures that went up in flames.
Fires occur regularly in the refugee camps, including one in January that destroyed hundreds of homes, but not on the scale of Monday’s blaze.
“It is massive, it is devastating,” UNHCR’s Johannes van der Klaauw told a Geneva briefing. “We still have 400 people unaccounted for, maybe somewhere in the rubble.”
Camps in the area around the southern city of Cox’s Bazar currently shelter nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees, who have mostly arrived since 2017, escaping a major crackdown by Myanmar’s military against the Muslim minority group. The UN said the campaign had a genocidal intent, a charge Myanmar rejects.
The fire has left them doubly bereft. “These people have been displaced two times. For many there is nothing left,” said Sanjeev Kafley, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Bangladesh. Tens of thousands had been displaced again, he said.
More than a thousand Red Cross staff and volunteers had worked with fire services to extinguish the blaze, which spread over four sections of the camp containing roughly 124,000 people, he said.
“Everything has gone. Thousands are without homes,” Aman Ullah, a Rohingya refugee from the Balukhali camp, told Reuters. “The fire was brought under control after six hours but some parts of the camp could be seen smoking all night long.”
At least three of the dead were children and the search for victims continued, said Nizam Uddin Ahmed, the top government official in Ukhiya, a sub-region of the Cox’s Bazar district where the camp is located.
The cause of the fire is not yet known. “Authorities are investigating,” said Zakir Hossain Khan, a senior police official.
Rebuilding will need to happen fast ahead of monsoon season, between June and October, when cyclones and heavy rains often lead to floods. The UNHCR called for more funds. Its 2021 appeal for Rohingya support has reached only 16% of its nearly $300m (£218m)target.
Bangladesh is eager to begin sending the refugees back to Myanmar, which has a Buddhist majority. But several attempts at repatriation under a joint agreement have failed because the Rohingya refused to go, fearing more violence in a country that denies them basic rights including citizenship.