Doctors Worldwide

Eyewitness Account: Fire in the Rohingya Refugee Camps

People look on over the burnt remnants of the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh after a fire incident

On 22 March 2021, a huge fire spread through the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Reports indicate that an estimated 11 people lost their lives, with 560 others injured, 6 health facilities destroyed, 10,000 shelters damaged/destroyed, and 45,000 individuals displaced (WHO, 2021). 

Speaking about the incident, Sayeed Ahmed, our Project Field Coordinator, describes the scene in Balukhali camp as similar to the mass movement of Rohingya refugees in 2017.

People were moving from one place to another looking for food & a safe shelter. To me, it felt similar to the movement of refugees during the 2017 Rohingya Influx. I had seen viral pictures on social media of people moving away from the Myanmar border to Bangladesh in 2017, and I felt as though I was witnessing something similar in the camps of Cox’s Bazar on 23rd March. I saw people carrying their leftover belongings and moving places. I saw children, adults and the elderly searching for their belongings in the ashes”.

Teams on the ground say that the scale and intensity of the fire is unlike anything that has previously been seen before. The ISCG (Inter Sector Coordination Group for Rohingya Response)’s recent joint press release details the devastating impact of the incident, with the fire consuming shelters and essential facilities such as hospitals, primary health facilities, learning centres and women-friendly spaces in the camps. Sayeed Ahmed also reports that one of our DICE-selected facilities has been completely burnt down.

As assessments continue and the situation is closely monitored, the numbers of those affected are becoming clearer, with the death toll currently at 11, and 400 individuals still unaccounted for (WHO).

Rohingya refugee camp eyewitness view after a fire incident

Below, our CEO, Monowara Gani, who was in Cox’s Bazar at the time of the incident, reflects on the impact of the fire.

Among the burnt rubble stretching as far as the eye could see, my colleague witnessed a very old man crouched on the floor sifting out individual rice granules among the black charred debris. It looked like it was his home. The heat was unforgiving; as soon as we entered the burnt camps, the temperature felt above 40 degrees. Within minutes, we were sweating profusely. Walking through the camps, we saw a sea of people whose lives had suddenly been turned upside down. Many were digging through the burnt, smouldering rubble looking for items to salvage. It was the children that were especially hard to see. 

Everything was still hot, small fires scattered around were still burning out, and the air was stifling, filled with smoke. We met some of our DICE and PGF alumni. Some had been there since the fire and had not left; one of their clinics was destroyed. Distressed and welling up, they felt like they had lost their home, but all they could think of was the people they serve and who had lost even more. As news of nearly 10,000 people homeless comes to light, the sheer scale of destruction and its impact is starting to sink in. Nothing can prepare you for the sights we witnessed today, and as we go to sleep in our hotel rooms many kilometres away from the camps, it is the thought of all the vulnerable Rohingya people and missing children without a roof or any belongings that is keeping us awake tonight.

Emergency care development in the camps is now even more important. Our DICE (Doctors Worldwide Improving Care in Health Emergencies) & PGF (Postgraduate Fellowship in Refugee & Migrant Health) participants are currently on the ground in the camps, serving those in need and utilising their medical skills to support the healthcare system in Cox’s Bazar. 

To support the continuation of this work, and the strengthening & development of the primary care and emergency healthcare system in the refugee camps, you can donate to our DICE & PGF programmes here.

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*Image 1 credit: ISCG

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