Peter Symonds: The blaze, whose cause remains under investigation, rapidly consumed squalid shanties that house a million Rohingya refugees who fled the murderous operations of the military in neighbouring Myanmar. The fire gutted some 10,000 dwellings as well as community centres, schools and other structures, leaving as many as 60,000 homeless and in need of food, water, shelter and medicine.
As of this writing, 15 people are confirmed dead, but the number could rapidly rise as at least 400 people, mostly children, are still missing. Another 560 people were injured.
Barbed wire fencing surrounding the camps hindered people fleeing the fire and contributed to the terrible toll. Lack of water enabled the fire to spread unchecked until it was finally brought under control by firefighters some six hours later.
Bangladesh’s refugee commissioner, Shah Rezwan Hayat, had dismissed calls by international humanitarian agencies for the removal of the fences, absurdly claiming that their erection was “to ensure the safety and security of the Rohingya people.” In reality, the barbed wire surrounds what can only be characterized as a huge concentration camp, imprisoning hundreds of thousands of people without access to the most basic services, including clean water and sanitation.
The Bangladeshi government has treated the Rohingya refugees with outright hostility, tarring them as criminals and scapegoating them for the country’s lack of essential services. After attempting to block them from entering the country, then detaining them in shocking conditions in the Cox’s Bazar camps, it is now seeking to force them into permanent accommodation on Bhasan Char Island, an isolated, unstable, flood- and cyclone-prone mud flat, or compel them to return to Myanmar, with no guarantees for their safety.
More than 700,000 of the refugees currently in Bangladesh fled Myanmar in 2017 after the military launched systematic attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority, carrying out murder, rape and the burning of villages. In 2018, Andrew Gilmour, the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, characterized the military’s operations as “ethnic cleansing.”