Bangladesh fire: what caused Rohingya refugee camp blaze - was it an act of sabotage?

The United Nations estimate as many as 12,000 people have been left without shelter by the blaze.

The vulnerable Rohingya refugee community have suffered another devastating blow as a fire leaves thousands without shelter, even as humanitarian aid to the run-down camps continues to drop off.

A massive fire tore through a crammed Rohingya Muslim refugee camp in southern Bangladesh on Sunday (5 March), local officials and the United Nations say. Emdadul Haque, a fire service official, said no casualties had been reported as of Monday at the Kutupalong and Balukhali refugee camps, in the Cox’s Bazar district.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangladesh said in a Tweet that Rohingya refugee volunteers were responding to the fire with the agency and its partners providing support. An estimated 12,000 people had been left homeless, and 2,000 shelters had been destroyed, it said, while 90 facilities including hospitals and learning centres had been burnt down.

But what caused the blaze, who are the Rohingya people, and why are so many living in refugee camps?

Who are the Rohingya people?

The Rohingya people are an ethnic group - most of whom practise Islam - who have lived in the Rakhine state in majority Buddhist Myanmar for hundreds of years.

Muslim Rohingya face widespread discrimination in Myanmar, where most are denied citizenship and many other rights. More than one million Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar over the past few decades, including about 740,000 who crossed the border starting in August 2017, when the Myanmar military launched a brutal crackdown against them.

Thousands have been left without shelter after a fire tore through the Rohingya Kutupalong refugee camp (Photos: Adobe Stock and Google)
Thousands have been left without shelter after a fire tore through the Rohingya Kutupalong refugee camp (Photos: Adobe Stock and Google)
Thousands have been left without shelter after a fire tore through the Rohingya Kutupalong refugee camp (Photos: Adobe Stock and Google)

Last year, the United States said the oppression of Rohingya in Myanmar amounts to genocide, after US authorities confirmed accounts of mass atrocities against civilians by the military in a systematic campaign against the ethnic minority. The Myanmar military has been accused of committing mass murder, rape and torching villages, with the “intent to destroy the Rohingya as a group in whole or in part”, the Guardian reports.

Conditions in Myanmar have worsened since a military takeover in 2021, and attempts to send the refugees back from Bangladesh have failed.

Why is the Kutupalong refugee camp significant?

Kutupalong is the largest refugee camp in the world. When its neighbouring offshoot camps are taken into account - including Balukhali - it is estimated to be home to nearly one million people, most of them Rohingya.

The Kutupalong camp sits right on Bangladesh’s southern border with Myanmar, in Southeast Asia. It has been plagued by safety issues over the years. Most of the shelters are made of flimsy materials, and as well as semi-frequent fires during the dry season, their hillside location means they are prone to getting washed away in monsoon season.

The Bangladeshi Government has also caused some roadblocks. Aid agencies from donor countries like the United States have for years asked for permission to upgrade the camp’s shelters with structures that are better at resisting heavy rains and fires, but the government has consistently rejected that appeal, saying the shelters don’t need to be upgraded because they are meant to be temporary, the Washington Post reports. Many of the camps are also surrounded by barbed-wire fencing, which makes it hard for residents to escape disasters.

The refugees are supported by a number of foreign governments. There is a UNHCR office at Kutupalong which receives aid from the European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan, Finland, Sweden, as well as the IKEA Foundation. But humanitarian aid can be in short supply. The fire came just days after the World Food Programme announced it was cutting food aid to the camp due to funding shortages, The Times reports.

What caused the refugee camp blaze?

Officials say the cause of the fire is not yet clear, but it is under investigation. But fires have been a frequent problem in the refugee camps, the Guardian reports, where people live in extremely cramped conditions in shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulin.

Two years ago, at least 15 people died and about 45,000 others were displaced after a fire engulfed an entire block of shelters. A Bangladesh defence ministry report said between January 2021 and December 2022, there were 222 fires in the Rohingya camps – and the cause of 60 of them was arson.

The Dhaka Tribune, a Bangladeshi publication, reports the frequency of the incidents has raised questions about whether the fires were accidental or intentional acts. Rohingya leaders have alleged the repeated fires at the camp may be sabotage by Myanmar separatist groups, and have asked authorities to look into the matter.