A fire has swept through the Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh, destroying homes belonging to thousands of people, according to the United Nations.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said more than 550 shelters – home to at least 3,500 people – were either totally or partially destroyed in the blaze on Thursday, as well as 150 shops and a facility belonging to a non-profit organisation.
Photographs and video provided to Reuters news agency by a Rohingya refugee in Nayapara Camp showed families, including children, sifting through charred corrugated iron sheets to see if they could salvage anything from their smouldering homes.
But little remained of the camp, which had stood for decades, aside from concrete poles and the husks of a few trees.
“E-block is completely burned down,” said the refugee, Mohammed Arakani. “There is nothing left. There was nothing saved. Everything is burned down.”
“Everyone is crying,” he added. “They lost all their belongings. They lost everything … all their goods.”
The UNHCR said it was providing shelter, materials, winter clothes, hot meals, and medical care for the refugees displaced by the calamity at the camp in Cox’s Bazar district, a sliver of land bordering Myanmar in southeastern Bangladesh.
“Security experts are liaising with the authorities to investigate on the cause of fire,” the agency said, adding that no casualties were reported.
Mohammed Shamsud Douza, the deputy Bangladesh government official in charge of refugees, said the fire service spent two hours putting out the blaze but was hampered by the explosion of gas cylinders inside homes.
He said there had been no decision on whether shelters would be rebuilt or refugees moved elsewhere.
The Bangladesh government has moved several thousand Rohingya to a remote island in recent weeks, despite protests from human rights groups who say some of the relocations were forced, allegations denied by authorities.
More than a million Rohingya live in the mainland camps in southern Bangladesh, the vast majority having fled Myanmar in 2017 in a military-led crackdown the UN said was executed with genocidal intent – charges Myanmar denies.
The fire destroyed part of a camp inhabited by Rohingya who fled Myanmar after an earlier military campaign, according to refugees.
In a statement, Save the Children NGO said the fire was “another devastating blow for the Rohingya people who have endured unspeakable hardship for years”.
“Today’s devastating fire will have robbed many families of what little shelter and dignity left to them. It stands as another ghastly reminder that children stuck in the camps in Cox’s Bazar face a bleak future with little freedom of movement, inadequate access to education, poverty, serious protection risks and abuse including child marriage,” Save the Children’s country director in Bangladesh Onno van Manen said.
The NGO said the international community must find a “lasting and durable solution to the plight of the Rohingyas”.
“In addition, the international community must fully fund the humanitarian response for the Rohingya crisis, which is woefully under-funded. Without adequate funding, essential lifesaving services for the Rohingya will suffer,” it said.