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  • Mythri Raveendranathan

Disaster even in refuge: the Rohingya refugee camp fires

Whilst the violence of Myanmar’s military junta is no new phenomenon, the February coup d’etat, and other events, widely documented in global headlines have brought the persecution of Rohingya Muslims to the frontline. However this is not the first time Rohingya Muslims have taken centre-stage of the world’s media; in 2017, increasing violence and persecution from state authorities forced the Rohingya Muslims - the world’s largest group of stateless people - to flee Buddhist-majority Myanmar and seek refuge in Bangladesh. Now, it appears the Rohingya Muslims are not safe even in refuge, as the camps have been devastated by fires in recent months - fires that have been exacerbated by human rights concerns.

As of 2020, there are over 800 000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps. However, UNHCR representatives and human rights activists have highlighted various human rights concerns associated with the camps - overcrowding, exposure to natural disasters, and lack of access to services amongst them. With no other alternative to the camps, the Rohingya Muslims have been forced to live in ‘the biggest and most congested refugee settlement on Earth’. Here, they endure starvation, poverty, and lack proper access to education, as revealed in the New York Times’ The Schoolteacher and the Genocide - a poignant read that exposes the true and horrifying reality of being a Rohingya refugee.

The severity of these issues has only recently entered the international spotlight after devastating fires broke through camps in January and March earlier this year, altogether killing at least 15 refugees, and displacing more than 40 000.

In January, Nayapura camp, located in southeast Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazaar, was struck by a fire that burned through more than 550 shelters, leaving them at least partially destroyed. At least 3500 people were displaced as a result of the blaze, and it destroyed the safety, shelter, and livelihoods of many refugees. Only two months later, yet another fire devastated a camp in Cox’s Bazaar. On March 22nd, a fire ripped through Balukhali camp, affecting over 100 000 Rohingya - more than a tenth of the total number of refugees. It lasted over ten hours and resulted in 15 deaths, and over 400 people missing.

Questions have since arisen as to the safety of the camps. Whilst overcrowding meant that the fire spread faster, even more concerning are the barbed wire fences that encloses the camp, preventing many of the Rohingya from escaping the blaze. The rhetoric justifying these fences has surrounded ‘security concerns’, with a Bangladeshi Parliamentary Defense Committee espousing that ‘Rohingya are a threat not just to Bangladesh itself, but to all of South East Asia’. In practice, the barbed wire fences have accomplished everything but security. They were installed with no regard for the wishes of the Rohingya, and even prior to the fires, were a hindrance to community life. Now, after the fires, they are a proven safety hazard - the antithesis of what they claim to achieve. Herein lies the true tragedy: if the Rohingya cannot remain safe even in refuge, then what is left for them?

The destruction caused by these fires will not remain isolated events. They have been occurring with increasing frequency and will continue to do so, as long as the camps remain overcrowded and underserviced. Repatriation to Myanmar remains a non-viable option, especially since the coup d’etat, and current efforts by the Bangladeshi government to relocate refugees to a small island are hindered by the possible consequences of monsoons in the area. Whilst international aid efforts have helped somewhat, the fact remains that for many Rohingya, the fires have displaced them for a second time.

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