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Dhaka Tribune

Fire incidents in Rohingya camps: Accident or sabotage?

Some of the incidents were deadly, while some of them left thousands homeless

Update : 06 Mar 2023, 03:57 PM

In recent years, over 300 fire incidents have been reported in Cox's Bazar's Rohingya camps - home to some 1.2 million displaced people from Myanmar. 

Some of the incidents were deadly, while some of them left thousands homeless. 

The frequency of the incidents has raised questions about whether the fires were accidental or intentional acts of sabotage. 

According to the report of the parliamentary committee of the Ministry of Defence said there were 222 fires in shelter camps in 2021, and 99 of these were accidental. 

As of February 15, a total of 60 of the incidents are deemed to be sabotage, and the reasons behind 63 of them are still unknown.

The latest fire, which broke out in three Rohingya camps in Ukhiya's Balukhali on Sunday, has destroyed over 2,000 houses.

The fire first broke out in the B and E blocks of camp no 11 around 3pm, later, the fire spread to neighboring Rohingya camps no 10 and 9.

A 17-year-old local teenager has been detained on suspicion of being involved in the incident.

In this regard, Armed Police Battalion (APBn-8) Commander (Additional DIG) Amir Zafar, said: "Today, the Rohingyas detained a teenager while he was trying to run away after the fire incident. He is being interrogated.”

Referring to the incidents of fire in the camp, the additional DIG said: "An investigation committee is being formed to find out the cause of the fire. And we are investigating if there is another reason behind this fire incident. Besides, we are increasing surveillance in the camp.”

Earlier, on March 22, 2021, a major fire was reported in the same camp along with three neighboring camps. 

At that time, more than 10,000 homes were destroyed and over 40,000 Rohingya were left homeless. In addition, 15 Rohingyas including two children were burnt to death.

Several Rohingya leaders alleged the repeated fires at the camp may be due to sabotage by Myanmar's separatist groups. They suggested authorities to look into the matter.

Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Kutupalong Rohingya camp leader, Rafiq said: "There may be another reason behind the repeated fires in the camp. Why do fires break out here so frequently? Because the probe body's recommendations for previous fire incidents have not been implemented yet, it is not possible for us to prevent fires in the camp.”

He complained that the camps were previously under the control of Myanmar's armed group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), but recently members of the old armed organization the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) took control. 

“The conflict between the two groups has become public. Hence, one party may set fire to the camp to evict and trap the other party,” Rafiq added. 

According to data from the Fire Service and Civil Defence, eight fire incidents were reported in 2018, 10 in 2019, and 65 in 2021.

Although the ministry report said the total count of 222, Rohingyas said the number is much higher. 

In addition to that, some 15 small and big fires have occurred in the last three months of this year.

Rohingyas said that 50-60 fire incidents take place in the camps every year, but the strong role of those concerned is not visible except for drills and announcements via microphones. 

There is no immediate fire extinguishing system in the camps, they added.

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Emdadul Haque, an officer of the Fire Service and Civil Defence's Ukhiya station said: "Compared to before, fire incidents in the camp have decreased. Moreover, it is difficult to know the exact cause of the fire.”

“Basically the Rohingya camps are densely populated. There are shanties. So it is difficult to control fire in a timely manner. 

“Most of the camps do not have wide roads, making it difficult to get inside. Also, due to the scarcity of water sources, if there is a fire, the amount of damage in the camps is also high,” the official added. 

Inciting audioclip of Arsa leader on YouTube

Last Friday, a Rohingya-based YouTube channel “Rohingya Real Voice” aired an audio clip of a Rohingya man, who quoted an Arsa leader. 

In the audio, the unidentified Rohingya claims to be a member of Arsa. 

He warned those involved in the “suppression” of Arsa and warned that if the anger against Arsa is not addressed, there will be serious consequences.

The recent fire occurred just two days after the broadcast of the message.

Cox's Bazar District Superintendent of Police Mahfuzul Islam said that the issue of the audio message is also being looked into. 

“Also, our detectives have started working to find out whether the fire was arson or not. The police are on high alert to prevent any kind of disorder in the camps,” he added. 

Rohingya leader Syed Ullah said: "There is a suspicion that some gang is behind the fire in the Rohingya camp. If the real cause of the fire is not found and prevention measures are not taken, there will always be fear among the people here." 

“Earlier, the Rohingyas had guarded the camps block by block,” he added. 

Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mizanur Rahman said: "We are not ruling out whether the fire incident was sabotage or not. A suspect has already been arrested. The incident is being investigated.”

Speculation surrounding the recent fire

Even though officials claimed Sunday's devastating fire originated from a kitchen gas cylinder at the camp, it is still uncertain where the fire began and different rumours continue to circulate.

According to unconfirmed sources, Sunday's fire incident could be an act of sabotage.

It is alleged that the place was surrounded by RSO members and government security forces in order to hunt down three key members of Arsa who were inside the camp. 

The Arsa members set the fires in order to create chaos and find a way to flee. A few people have also been that a stranger appeared right where the fire started.

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