A fire wreaked havoc and left thousands of people homeless — but it barely made the news

The Rohingya are certainly in a bad way but what is not mentioned below is that they largely have themselves to thank for it. Under British rule in Burma, many Indians migrated to Burma for economic reasons. When Burma became independent, however, the Muslim Rohingya minority began to make nuisances of themselves in the usual Muslim way.

The Burmese are however Buddhist so have hit back at their rebellious Rohingya residents. So many Rohingya have returned to their ancestral India, to Bangladesh in particular. India is however poor and already heavily populated so has no room for them. If they were smart, the Rohingya would convert to Christianity, a much less troublesome religion than Islam. Missionaries Ahoy!

During the early hours of January 7, inside a sprawling community of around 1 million people, a fire started. It jumped from one structure to another, quickly becoming a massive blaze that engulfed hundreds of properties.

Photos and videos of the inferno show people desperately trying to save homes, using the limited equipment on offer.

But, as advocates point out with a mix of frustration and sadness, most people around the world didn’t notice.

Because this fire happened in a Rohingya refugee camp.

“It’s been really heartbreaking,” says Noor Azizah, the co-founder and director of the Rohingya Maìyafuìnor Collaborative Network.

In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, scores of Rohingya refugees continue to live in ever-worsening conditions.

But the passage of time combined with a string of other international crises has seen the world turn its gaze from the Rohingya, with the latest fire receiving little, if any, media coverage in Australia and elsewhere in the world.

“It occurred at a time when people were deeply asleep,” says Mohammed Aziz, a Rohingya refugee who lives in nearby Camp 1.

Rows of cramped, makeshift shelters were soon ablaze, with families, elderly people and children making panicked escapes.

“The fire spread and got bigger so fast that most of the people couldn’t save any of their belongings,” Mr Aziz says.

Rohingya refugees photographed the January 7 fire as it jumped from shelter to shelter. Supplied: Mohammed Kayas via UNHCR
He describes how the camps’ lack of proper firefighting resources and bad roads meant the fire could “continue its devastation” into the night.

“Because of the camps’ congested infrastructure, fires pose a big danger.”

It burned for two to three hours and, according to UNHCR, around 800 shelters were destroyed and 7,000 Rohingya left homeless.

In a statement, the UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh Sheldon Yett said 3,500 children were impacted, with 20 learning facilities destroyed in the fire.

Advocate Ms Azizah has a close connection to these communities — she’s a Rohingya refugee who fled Myanmar (also known as Burma) with her family and resettled in Sydney in 2003.

She’s visited the Cox’s Bazar camps and says the dire conditions mean they’re a tinderbox when a fire starts.

“The shelters are made out of wood and the roofs are made out of plastic … [There can be] families of 10 living in one small tent.”

And the January blaze is the latest in a series of major fires, including one in March 2023 that left around 10,000 people homeless.

A Bangladesh panel investigating the March 2023 fire found it was a “planned act of sabotage” and there are suggestions the January fire could also be arson — indicative of how lawless and unsafe the camps have become.

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group who have lived in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar for generations.

For decades, they have faced extreme persecution there. A 1982 law denied them citizenship, and wave after wave of violence has meant many Rohingya have fled across the border from Myanmar to Bangladesh.

In 2017, the Myanmar military enacted a brutal crackdown against the Rohingya in Rakhine state, which multiple countries including the US have labelled as genocide.

The violence saw hundreds of thousands of Rohingya flee to Bangladesh in what the International Crisis Group called “one of the most catastrophically fast refugee exoduses in modern times”.

A sprawling Rohingya community formed over the Myanmar border in Cox’s Bazar, with the temporary living conditions largely unchanged over the years.

When asked about the dangers in the camp aside from fires, Mr Aziz provides a long list. This includes “natural disasters … landslides, floodings, cyclones”, along with the “health concerns” that accompany these threats.

Then there are “man-made disasters” like “the state of being overcrowded and congested, limited access to clean water, gangs, conflicts, murders, criminal activities, corruption and arbitrary arrests”.

Without the right to work in Bangladesh, the Rohingya are reliant on humanitarian funding, which has been cut as other international crises have occurred.


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