Hundreds unaccounted for . . .
On Monday, a massive fire tore through the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh. The camp was housing Rohingya who fled their homes in Rakhine State in neighbourhing Myanmar after the Myanmar military began conducting ‘clearance operations’ against them in 2017. So far, 15 have been confirmed dead, and an estimated 400 are missing. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said there are 560 injured and 45,000 people displaced. The displaced are being temporarily housed elsewhere within the Cox’s Bazar facilities.
Hazardous conditions . . .
The cause of the fire is still being investigated by Bangladeshi authorities, although the conditions that allowed it to burn for hours are not a mystery. The camps in Cox’s Bazar are severely overcrowded, and many of the shelters are made of bamboo and tarpaulin – materials that provide little protection against fire. Moreover, the Balukhali camp lacks a water source that would have been sufficient to extinguish the fire, and many of the shelters were located along hillsides that are difficult for fire trucks to reach. Unfortunately, this was not the first fire in the Rohingya camps this year; two other fires in Cox’s Bazar in January left approximately 3,500 people homeless.
International community needs to step up . . .
This latest tragedy should serve as a wake-up call to the unsustainability of the Rohingya refugees’ situation. Bangladesh has been reluctant to continue to host them and has held discussions with the Myanmar government about repatriation, although such a prospect is an unacceptable option given the security situation in Rakhine has deteriorated in recent years. The February 1 military coup in Myanmar makes the repatriation option even more unacceptable, especially since the junta leader is one of the individuals responsible for the alleged acts of genocide against the Rohingya that are now the subject of a lawsuit before the International Court of Justice. Canada, which has taken a leadership role on the plight of the Rohingya, could do so once again in co-ordinating wealthier countries to open their borders to permanent Rohingya resettlement once the COVID-19 threat subsides.