At one hour past midnight on January 7, a fire broke out in Camp 5, one of the 33 camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. It took three hours to bring the blaze under control, but that was enough time for the fire to destroy nearly 900 shelters and damage hundreds more. As a result, 7,000 Rohingya refugees are now without shelter. Again.
“I woke up when my shelter caught fire,” explains Nur Bahar as she sits on the ground in what used to be her home. She escaped from Myanmar in 2017 after her husband was killed. Pregnant at the time, she later gave birth to a boy, who is now almost seven years old. Around her the roof and walls are gone; she and her son are sitting on a carpet, surrounded by food and clothes donated by other community members. “Without a husband or family, I have no one to take care of me. I rely on food donations and hope to find someone to help me rebuild my shelter.”
The situation is just as difficult for those who have families. Anuhara, 67, is surrounded by her relatives. She usually lives here with her two sons and daughter-in-law, but the latter gave birth to a baby just two days before the fire and had moved to another area of the camp. Where other relatives are also living, which might have saved her. As we speak, her two sons and other family members are building a bamboo shelter. Anuhara lost everything but what she was wearing. “My clothes are the only possession I saved.”
Sawna Ullah works as a Humanitarian Affairs Liaison at the MSF clinic* in Balukhali that was recently reopened after also being destroyed in fire. His job is to meet with fellow Rohingya in the camps to understand their needs and how MSF can help. “We had just decorated the shelter for my son’s wedding,” he says, standing under provisional plastic sheeting. Now, he is the one in need of support, as the fire spared neither his nor his family's living space.
Although official data reports no casualties from the fire, the impact is nonetheless devastating. The Rohingya, who fled violence in Myanmar, have been displaced once again. Since the major influx in 2017, they have been trying to adjust to the uncertainty of living in a provisional camp, under very difficult conditions, totally dependent on aid. The situation is considered temporary – permanent constructions aren't allowed in the camp, the Rohingya can't work, children do not receive formal education, and people face many other restrictions.
The resilience of the Rohingya community is remarkable. People from other parts of the camp quickly arrived to donate clothes and food, acting as first responders, MSF provided psychological first aid, and together with other organisations assessed the needs and are preparing a more coordinated response. It's been less than a week since another devastating fire hit Camp 11 nearby. “After Camp 5 was destroyed, people from Camp 11 came with food and clothes donations,” says Erik Engel, an MSF Project Coordinator. “Yet, despite their resilience, the Rohingya need a vision of a future they can trust. Constantly living in temporary conditions doesn't allow for a life of dignity.”
*The clinic was destroyed in a fire on March 22, 2021, which killed 15 people, injured 560 and left 45,000 people without shelter. After more than two years of reconstruction, MSF's clinic finally reopened on December 21, 2023.