The UN, aid groups and Rohingya leaders said the fences erected by the military hampered rescue work and caused injuries during Monday’s 12-hour blaze in the maze that killed at least 15 people and left nearly 50,000 homeless.

Aftermath of a fire at Rohingya Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh March 23, 2021 in this still image obtained from a social media video.
Aftermath of a fire at Rohingya Balukhali refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh March 23, 2021 in this still image obtained from a social media video. (Ro Yassin Abdumonab / Reuters)

Bangladesh has defended the use of barbed-wire fences around vast camps holding almost a million Rohingya refugees, after a major fire left at least 15 people dead and nearly 50,000 homeless.

The fire, which gutted some 10,000 refugee shanties, was the deadliest since more than 740,000 Rohingya fled a military crackdown in Myanmar in 2017 that UN investigators concluded was executed with "genocidal intent".

The UN, aid groups and Rohingya leaders said that the fences erected by the military hampered rescue work and caused injuries during Monday's 12-hour blaze in the maze of bamboo-and-tarp huts.

"Rescue efforts proved to be challenging as a result of the presence of perimeter fencing," a joint statement from the United Nations, local and international aid agencies said.

"In some instances, refugees themselves cut through the fence to escape the fire," it said.

READ MORE: Fire at Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh turns deadly

Fence for refugees' security?

Bangladesh refugee commissioner Shah Rezwan Hayat defended the fences, which were built in recent months amid a worsening law and order situation in the vast settlements.

"I don't believe these fences have hampered rescue efforts. There were enough roads in the camps and the hundreds of our officials, policemen and volunteers were there to rescue them," he told AFP.

He said the fences were not built inside the camps to act as barriers between blocks of shanties.

"The barbed-wire fences were erected on the outer boundary of the camps to ensure the safety and security of the Rohingya people. If the fencing acted as a barrier, how could dozens of fire fighting vehicles, police vans enter the camps within 20 minutes after the fire?" he said.

Earlier Rohingya refugees vented their anger to reporters and on social media saying some were injured as they were trying to flee the fire through the fences.

International humanitarian agencies have called for the removal of the wire.

READ MORE: UN: Hundreds missing after deadly fire at Bangladesh refugee camp

Hundreds missing?

Hayat also rejected the UN's claim that some 400 people were still missing after the fire, saying most refugees have taken shelters with relatives in neighbouring camps, in schools and refugee transit centres.

"We are on the ground. So far we don't think anybody is missing," he said, adding the authorities and the UN agencies were now building tents and temporary shelters and most refugees have started returning.

A police spokesman said the local police station did not receive any reports of missing people from the Rohingya.

He said officers were questioning eight people over the fire.

Hayat said preliminary findings suggested the fire originated from a stove in a shelter and then quickly spread due to strong wind and cooking gas cylinders.

A full investigation was ongoing, he said.

Struggle to reunite children

Aid workers searched on Wednesday to reunite Rohingya Muslim families separated after the blaze.

"Most people scattered to other camps to stay with friends or relatives," said Snigdha Chakraborty, country manager for the Catholic Relief Services aid group.

"We must ensure that any children who were separated from their families during the evacuation are reunited quickly."

She did not provide any estimate of how many children had been left on their own.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, also said children were looking for their parents, in another trauma for families that fled from their homes in western Myanmar when the military there launched an offensive against Muslim insurgents in 2017.

"This is a very difficult situation and our heart goes out to the thousands of refugees who have yet met another disaster," UNHCR official Ita Schuette said in a video message posted on Twitter from Cox's Bazar.


Some 1 million Rohingya refugees live in camps in Cox's Bazar with little hope of returning to their homes in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where most have been refused citizenship and face persecution.

Citing overcrowding in the camps, Bangladesh has been trying to move 100,000 Rohingya to a remote Bay of Bengal island.

Aid groups say the flood-prone, low-lying Bhasan Char island, which only emerged from the sea about 20 years ago, risks being overwhelmed by storms and refugees should not be housed there.

Despite that, and the reluctance of many Rohingya to move, Bangladesh has transferred more than 13,000 refugees to the island since December.

READ MORE: Bangladesh moves more Rohingya refugees to remote island despite criticism

Source: TRTWorld and agencies