Cox’s Bazar – “The fire was so massive that no one could extinguish it. Everything turned to ashes,” recalled Shofiqul Islam, a Rohingya volunteer working with the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre.
All his origami books and paper art were destroyed in the fire.
Shofiqul is one of the roughly 48,000 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, who were displaced anew due to the massive fire that swept the camps on 22 March 2021. While efforts to douse the flames were reported to have been hampered by high winds, the cause of the fire remains unknown.
The year 2021 marks the fourth year since vulnerable Rohingya women, men and children were forced to flee violent persecution in their native Rakhine State in Myanmar. Close to 900,000 refugees now reside in 34 camps designated by the Government of Bangladesh in Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazilas of Cox’s Bazar District.
The four camps affected by the fire were extremely congested as the refugees had settled there by themselves very early in the response, or even before the 2017 influx. With the fire having completely destroyed Camp 9, the camp should be completely redesigned in coordination with the community and the government, to ensure everyone’s safety.
Three of the 34 camps were affected, including Camp 9, which turned to ashes in a matter of hours. With it, over 1,600 facilities were damaged, including health centres, women-friendly spaces, learning centres, food distribution points, markets and offices.
From the onset, IOM redirected its efforts to assist those affected by the fire and mitigate its impact through the rapid deployment of staff and resources. Once the fire was extinguished, the team conducted a quick assessment of the area to map out the damage and needs.
In the immediate aftermath, IOM deployed ambulances, mobile medical teams and mental health and psychosocial support staff. The teams set up an emergency health post in place of IOM’s 24/7 Primary Health Centre in Camp 9, which was obliterated in the fire.
Protection teams were dispatched to address cases of gender-based violence and lost or missing children, and to ensure all women and girls had access to menstrual hygiene management kits. Water, masks and hygiene kits were distributed, and some of the damaged hygiene facilities were quickly rehabilitated.
Approximately 10,000 shelters were wiped out in mere hours. IOM, with the support of its partners, rushed to distribute shelter and core relief items to all those affected. These families are currently sleeping in emergency shelters, but the humanitarian community is working to ensure everyone has access to a sturdy shelter in the coming weeks.
“With the monsoon and cyclone seasons fast approaching, the impact of the fire brings challenges that must be met immediately,” declared IOM’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Bangladesh, Manuel Marques Pereira.
“However, IOM advocates for the continuation of comprehensive humanitarian assistance for refugees across all camps,” he added.
As part of its fire prevention and mitigation measures, IOM and its partners, including the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence, will continue to conduct regular fire drills and training sessions for volunteers from the refugee camps and host communities on burn management.
To date, a total of 1,800 Disaster Management Unit (DMU) Rohingya volunteers have been trained in Fire Safety, Search and Rescue, and Basic First Aid (100 across each camp under IOM’s Area of Responsibility).
When the fire started, Rohingya volunteers were the first responders, helping people to safety, supporting fire response efforts and working through the night to support aid efforts.
“I rushed to douse the blaze when the fire engulfed the camps,” recalled Mohammad Ali, a Rohingya DMU volunteer firefighter.
“As we were dousing it, the fire engulfed the other side of the camp. When our extinguishers ran out, we rushed home. We couldn’t take any of our belongings with us. We just took our children and ran.”
Rohingya volunteers have proved once more to be vital to camp operations through their engagement in different Cash-for-Work activities. They helped clean up the debris and ensure a smooth coordination between refugees, authorities, local communities and partners.
These activities give refugees a space to voice their opinions and the means to provide for their families. It also makes them feel valued and included, and helps strengthen the humanitarian system’s accountability towards the affected population.
Since fleeing Myanmar, some refugees have stated their desire to return, but only when it is safe, and they have guaranteed access to basic rights and services, and a pathway to citizenship in Myanmar.
The UN agencies will continue to advocate with governments to create an environment conducive to their voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return, as early as possible.
While working together to make this a reality, under the leadership of the Government of Bangladesh, humanitarian and development partners will continue to meet the vital needs of both Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and their host communities.
IOM is relying on its partners to raise funds for the 2021 Joint Response Plan (JRP) for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis and an additional USD 20 million is required to respond to the most urgent needs of those affected by the fire as well as for mid-term recovery and rehabilitation.
IOM’s rapid response was possible thanks to the contribution of the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
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