Rohingya refugees struggle to rebuild after massive fire leaves thousands homeless

Jun 07, 2021
In March 2021, a massive fire ripped through Camp Nine in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, leaving 40,000 Rohingya refugees homeless and without food. At least 429 people are missing, and 563 were injured. 

In a matter of hours, families watched their makeshift homes and meagre belongings go up in flames – remnants of what they had built since being forced to flee their homes in neighbouring Myanmar just four years earlier.

World Vision Bangladesh is responding with emergency food assistance, clean water and shelter in the aftermath, but this latest tragedy is a particularly devastating blow for families who’ve already lost so much.

a young rohingya boy looks out over a burned landscape"I saw smoke coming rising from another side of the hill. People were shouting and panicking. I rescued my siblings and went to the neighbouring camp," said 11-year-old Baitullah, as he looked out at the charred remains of his home, having already lost his home once in Myanmar. Photo: Sathi Islam

Conflict, COVID-19, and climate in Cox’s Bazar

Nearly one million people live in temporary shelters on the hillsides in Cox’s Bazar Rohingya Response Refugee Camp, on the southern tip of Bangladesh.

A decades long conflict between minority groups, including the Rohingya, and government military in Myanmar escalated in August 2017. In Rakhine State, where most of the country’s ethnic Rohingya resided, military and police were accused of mounting brutal attacks on the ethnic minority. Families fled their homes on foot over the border into Bangladesh with what they could carry and found refuge near the Bay of Bengal.  
"The Rohingya refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world,” says Fredrick Christopher, World Vision Bangladesh Rohingya Crisis Response Director. “They have been living with ongoing uncertainty, storms and the threat of disease outbreaks since fleeing their homes in 2017. This fire is the last thing that they need at a time when shelter is critical for protection from the impending monsoon season, and COVID-19 is threatening to circulate around the crowded camps at an alarming rate.”
a group of adolescent girls sift through burned debris for what they can slavage.A group of adolescent girls sift through the debris in Camp Nine at Cox’s Bazar, to see what they can salvage. A fire destroyed their homes and the homes of thousands of other children, leaving them without shelter and food, and disrupting what access to education they had. Photo: Xavier Sku

Losing everything, again

“I was preparing the noon meal, and the children were playing outside. Suddenly someone shouted ‘Fire! Fire!,’” recalls Anwara, 27 a resident of Camp Nine. 

The fire spread close to her shelter in no time at all, and everyone ran. In the chaos, Anwara was separated from her husband and her five children – three girls and two boys.

“I was running on the road frantically looking for my children. I waited for them all night. I didn’t even notice when my home was burnt,” Anwara continues.

Later, she was reunited with her husband Zia-ur, 32, who says it was the longest night of his life.  

“I saw shelters were burning from one side and watched as it spread to the other side too. We left home with only the clothes we are wearing. We were scared of dying. At the same time, we were so worried about our children.”

Thankfully, the children found refuge at a neighbour’s house in the next camp, and all five survived.
two Rohingya women sits on the ground surrounded by small children in the midst of a burned out temporary structure.Anwara shelters with her children under a tarpaulin. Her makeshift home was one of 40, 000 destroyed in a fire in the world’s largest refugee camp. Photo: Xavier Sku

“Now, we borrowed a tarpaulin and are just staying here under its shelter,” says Anwara. “Who will give shelter to these thousands of homeless people? Now we have no clothes, food, cooking pot, dishes, bed – not even a cup to drink water. We lost everything.”

In it for the long haul

World Vision has been working in Bangladesh since 1970 and in Myanmar since 1991, providing health and nutrition services, access to education, clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in vulnerable communities, and equipping families to expand their livelihoods. 

When the Rohingya people began arriving in Cox’s Bazar, World Vision Bangladesh staff responded immediately, providing emergency food assistance, clean water, and child friendly spaces for those in need.
Three years later, the response expanded to include helping families protect themselves from COVID-19 by improving access to clean water and distributing more soap, as well as providing information about the need for frequent handwashing and maintaining a safe physical distance.

In the aftermath of the fire, World Vision is providing food assistance for almost 45,000 survivors in the affected areas. Some of World Vision’s education centres and multipurpose centres have been converted to emergency shelters, and we have plans to provide clean drinking water supplies. We are working closely with the government, the UN, and other partners to develop a comprehensive and coordinated plan to help those affected by the fire rebuild their lives.

Called to serve the oppressed

Leading the work is Atul Mrong, World Vision Bangladesh operations director. In his 17-year career, the veteran humanitarian worker and former sponsored child has managed disaster responses to devastating floods, cyclones, and earthquakes.

Watch Atul share what's happening on the ground in Camp Nine:

When COVID-19 hit, Atul could have returned home to be with family living in Dhaka—nine hours away by road. When the pandemic hit Bangladesh in late March 2020, many of the estimated 10, 000 aid workers serving in the camps, did just that. Instead, Atul chose to stay with his team in the camps where he has worked for the past two years. 

Being apart from his two sons, Arup, 12, and Arnob, 9, and his wife, Jasna, is difficult for Atul. “I miss them terribly. It is a huge sacrifice on both sides,” he says. But he feels called to this work.

“They remind me of me,” he says of the children and families he serves in the camps. “My family’s financial situation was not good. I had six sisters. I was the only son. My parents were not educated; they were illiterate. I saw their pain and struggle to earn a simple livelihood. It encouraged me to work for the oppressed and most vulnerable people.”

His faith keeps him focused. “The Rohingya are people on God’s planet, too, but they have no land, no citizenship, no rights and no hope,” says Atul. “Jesus was a refugee and he’s here with us now.”

You can help children and families in the world’s most dangerous places survive, recover and build a future by providing life-saving essentials like food, water, and shelter, creating safe places for children to overcome ongoing trauma, and by supporting local experts to develop long-term sustainable solutions to bring lasting change to communities who need it most. Act now.

With files from Xavier Sku and Sathi Islam.

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