Aid agencies are rushing emergency assistance to tens of thousands of victims of a deadly blaze that broke out Monday in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, destroying thousands of houses sheltering Rohingya refugees.
U.N. refugee representative in Bangladesh Johannes van der Klaauw calls the scale of the fire catastrophic. He said he has never before seen anything as massive and devastating. He said teams are on the ground dealing with the huge rescue and relief effort that is underway.
“We have so far confirmed 15 people dead, 560 injured, 400 are still missing and at least 10,000 shelters have been destroyed. That means at least 45,000 people are being displaced and for whom we seek now provisional shelter,” he said.
Van der Klaauw said he expects the number of casualties to rise. He said the majority of refugees are women and children. They also are the most vulnerable. He said it is urgent to find places for them to stay where they will be safe and protected.
Cox’s Bazar is the world’s largest refugee camp. It houses nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees who fled violence and persecution in Myanmar in August 2017. More than half of this population is children.
Spokesman for the U.N. children’s fund James Elder said thousands of children caught in the fire need assistance. He said a UNICEF team is in Cox’s Bazar trying to address and respond to those needs. He added health teams on the ground are administering first aid and working with other aid agencies.
“The reports we have are that yes, children are among the injured. Of course, there also are many children separated from their families. UNICEF has many learning centers, as we have tried to build and build and bring a bit of normality to these kids in these camps. Many of those have been fully burnt. The exact numbers we are trying to confirm, and we will, of course seek to rebuild those as quickly as possible,” said Elder.
The International Organization for Migration, along with the UNHCR, is coordinating the relief operation. IOM spokeswoman Angela Wells said the fire, which has since subsided, consumed essential facilities, including the camp’s largest health center. She said the cause of the blaze is still unknown.
“IOM teams and partners worked through the night to respond to the most immediate needs of those who fled the scene. Rohingya volunteers on the ground were the first responders, helping people to safety, supporting fire response efforts and working to support relief efforts. In the immediate aftermath, government response services, including the fire brigade, army and humanitarian agencies rushed to the area to put out the fire,” she said.
The World Food Program reports it immediately provided emergency rations of high-energy biscuits to the survivors, and it will provide 60,000 hot meals Tuesday to affected families.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Johannes van der Klaauw's last name. VOA regrets the error.