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Church groups rush aid to fire victims in Rohingya camp

Death toll rises following blaze that left thousands homeless and hundreds missing

Church groups rush aid to fire victims in Rohingya camp

The blaze at the Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar has left thousands homeless. (Photo: Caritas Bangladesh) 

Charity organizations including Church groups are rushing aid to the victims of a massive fire that ripped through the overcrowded Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, in southeast Bangladesh, killing up to 15 people and leaving about 400 missing some 27,000 homeless.

The blaze on March 22 engulfed Balukhali camp destroying more than 6,000 makeshift homes, refugee officials and development workers said. Authorities fear the death toll may rise as the search for the missing people continues.

"We are assessing the needs of refugees to deliver aid to them quickly," said Immanuel Chayan Biswas, head of operations of the Caritas Rohingya project in Cox’s Bazar.
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The Caritas Rohingya project, which aims to assist the ethnic Muslim refugees from Myanmar, is a unit of Caritas Bangladesh, the social service arm of the Church in Bangladesh.

“There are only ashes and some pillars where the fire broke out, some animals and birds were also found dead. As far as we know at least seven people have died and there are some people in the hospital with serious injuries,” Biswas told UCA News on March 23.

“We mainly deal with non-food items and shelters. But, we are also ready to provide food assistance according to the demand. They need food and shelter right now. Caritas has opened all the centers they have in the Rohingya camp, so that people can sleep at night,” he added.

About 50,000 refugees were reportedly forced to flee their makeshift homes to escape the fire as thick columns of smoke blanketed the area in what was the worst fire tragedy to hit the refugee camps to date.

Another fire in the Nayapara refugee camp in January left 500 shanties gutted and 3,500 homeless, but no deaths.

The blaze in the Balukhali camp started at around 4:00 p.m. local time in one of its locales and quickly spread to three more. It took hundreds of firefighters more than eight hours to bring it under control.

“About 2,000 shanties were fully burned and more than 6,000 were damaged. Two hospitals run by NGOs have also been totally destroyed. We are providing food assistance to the victims,” Mohammad
Shamsudouza, additional commissioner of state-run Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission, told UCA News.

“We want to get as many development organizations as possible to provide them with food assistance and shelter at the same time. There was an immediate response from the local and international organizations as well, they are acting according to our advice,” he said.

The official said the cause of the fire is still unknown and added that an investigation into the blaze has been launched.

Mohammad Emdadul Haque, an official from Ukhiya Fire Service Station, who took part in rescue operations, said the devastation caused was huge and will take several days to get a total picture.

“It is difficult to say how much damage was caused by the fire. It should be a lot as an area of more than 1.5-2 km in radius has been burned down,” Haque told the Dhaka Tribune newspaper.

Mohammad Solim, a refugee community leader said that he lost everything he had.

“My house burned down ... People are terrified, they have lost everything and are living on the streets,” Solim, who lives in the camp with four family members, told UCA News.

He said the fire resembled the terrible scenes back in 2017 when the Myanmar military attacked hundreds of Rohingya villages in Rakhine state forcing them to flee to Bangladesh.

“We are now living in the open. We got some aid from NGOs, which is not enough. We need more food and a shelter to live in,” he said.

Despite living in Myanmar for generations, many in the Buddhist-majority country consider Rohingya recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They are denied basic rights including citizenship and regularly face abuse and persecution from the state and radical Buddhists.

Bangladesh is now home to around one million Rohingya Muslim refugees, who live in more than 30 makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar district. 

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