Rohingya refugees who lost their homes in the devastating fire repair their homes with the help of development agencies on March 24, at Balukhali Rohingya Camp at Cox's Bazar. (Photo: Caritas Bangladesh)
A senior Church official, human rights campaigners and refugees have demanded immediate removal of barbed wire fences surrounding Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, which they blamed for entrapping thousands of refugees during a recent fatal fire.
The call was made after a fire ripped through Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar that left at least 15 people dead, hundreds injured and about 27,000 homeless on March 22. About 50,000 were displaced as they fled the blaze to save lives.
Following the tragedy, allegations surfaced that barbed wire fences, which Bangladeshi authorities installed encircling refugee camps in 2019 over security concerns, obstructed refugees from fleeing and also the rescue operations.
In a statement, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the removal of fences to ensure freedom of movement for Rohingya and quickly release the findings of the probe into the fire.
“Barbed wire fencing trapped thousands of refugees while a massive fire spread...The Bangladesh government should immediately remove the fencing surrounding the camps,” HRW said on March 25.
“Refugees have horrifying accounts of being trapped inside barbed wire fencing as the fire swept through the Rohingya refugee camps,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
“The authorities should immediately take down all fencing around the camps and make public the outcome of its investigation into the fire’s cause.”
Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, has also been critical about the fencing of Rohingya camps.
“Barbed wire fence was installed in Rohingya camp with a purpose — protection from wildlife and other threats. But it is true the fence has hindered the free movement of Rohingyas. During the fire the fence became a serious obstruction,” Father Gomes told UCA News.
“The government should remove the barbed wire fence and allow free movement of Rohingyas. Even if the government does not want to remove fences, at least there should be some preparations such as rehearsals to help refugee survive such disasters," the priest said stressing the need for more roads and emergency exits.
A Rohingya man bemoaned the fence had taken away everything he had in his shelter.
“This barbed wire fence has taken away everything from me. We had food, clothes, some money in the house, I lost all and sit under the open sky today with my seven-member family,” Muhammad Hafes, 46, told UCA News.
Hafes said his shelter was close to the fence making it difficult to flee with belongings.
“A child died in a fire near our shelter as it was not possible to rescue the child" because of the fence,” he added.
Mohammad Shamsudouza, additional commissioner of state-run Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission, however, defended the fencing.
“International organizations often say many things but it is not possible for a country to accept all of them. The fire was an accident, but the fence was provided for the permanent safety of refugees. The decision for the fence came from the higher authorities and they will decide what they will do on this issue,” Shamsudouza told UCA News.
Meanwhile, HRW says international laws do not permit fencing or restriction on freedom movement.
“Bangladesh is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of movement. Governments may restrict movement under certain circumstances, but such limits must be enacted in law, necessary to protect national security or public order and be a proportionate response to a specific security concern,” it said.