By Minaz Kerawala, Communications and Public Relations Advisor
A huge fire broke out at about 2:45 p.m. local time on Sunday, March 5, 2023, in the Kutupalong Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Mercifully, no lives have been lost. However, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that the fire, which spread to 15 sub-blocks of Camp 11, has damaged or destroyed over 2,800 shelters and 155 facilities, including medical and learning centres. Nearly 16,000 Rohingya refugees from over 3,000 households have been left homeless.
As long as shelters continue being built of bamboo and tarpaulin, these fires will keep flaring up.Dominique Godbout, emergency programs officer
Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada’s local partner, Caritas Bangladesh, is currently coordinating and communicating the response with the office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner and various UN agencies, including the IOM.
Even when, as in this case, it is not operational in an affected camp, Caritas Bangladesh is often called on to help in such situations because of its expertise in building, maintaining and repairing shelters. Two years ago, Caritas Bangladesh’s knowhow had been sought in the wake of another fire that had claimed over a dozen lives.
“These tragedies have become unfortunately commonplace,” emergency programs officer Dominique Godbout said, adding, “There are nearly one million refugees crammed in those camps. As long as shelters continue being built of bamboo and tarpaulin, these fires will keep flaring up. Luckily, no one died this time, but that has not always been the case.”
Godbout’s point is borne out by media reports of a Bangladeshi defence ministry survey that counted 222 fire incidents in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps over the two-year period ended December 2022.
Intent on eventually repatriating the Rohingya refugees to their native Burma (Myanmar), the Government of Bangladesh does not permit the use of durable weather- and fire-resistant materials in the construction of shelters, lest they acquire an air of permanence. In a joint statement issued earlier this year, Caritas Bangladesh and its international partners, including Development and Peace ― Caritas Canada, had called for this policy to be changed.