At least 15 people have been killed in a massive fire that ripped through a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, while 400 remain missing, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday.
“It is massive, it is devastating,” said the UNHCR’s Johannes van der Klaauw, who joined a Geneva briefing virtually from Dhaka, Bangladesh. “We still have 400 people unaccounted for, maybe somewhere in the rubble,” he said.
He added that the UNHCR has reports of 560 people injured and 45,000 people displaced.
Bangladeshi officials said they are investigating the cause of the massive fire as officials sifted through the debris looking for more victims.
The fire ripped through the Balukhali camp near the southeastern town of Cox’s Bazar late on Monday, burning through thousands of huts as people scrambled to save their meagre possessions.
The vast majority of the people in the camps fled Myanmar in 2017 amid a military-led crackdown on the Rohingya that UN investigators said was executed with “genocidal intent”, a charge Myanmar denies.
Police Inspector Gazi Salahuddin said the fire – the biggest in the cramped settlements since 2017 – ripped through flimsy bamboo-and-tarpaulin shelters and grew after cylinders of cooking gas exploded.
Mohammad Yasin, a Rohingya helping fight the fire, told AFP news agency the blaze raged for more than 10 hours and was the worst he had seen.
“People ran for their lives as it spread fast. Many were injured and I saw at least four bodies,” said Aminul Haq, a refugee.
A volunteer for Save the Children, Tayeba Begum, said: “Children were running, crying for their families.”
Sanjeev Kafley, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies delegation in Bangladesh, said more than 17,000 shelters had been destroyed in the blaze, and tens of thousands of people had been displaced.
The fire spread over four sections of the camp housing roughly 124,000 people, about one-tenth of the more than one million Rohingya refugees in the area, he added.
Some witnesses said the barbed wire fencing around the camp trapped many people, hurting some and leading international humanitarian agencies to call for its removal.
Humanitarian organisation Refugees International, which estimated that 50,000 people had been displaced by the fire, said the extent of the damage may not be known for some time.
“Many children are missing, and some were unable to flee because of barbed wire set up in the camps,” it said in a statement.
It was the third blaze to hit the camps in four days, fire brigade official Sikder, who only goes by one name, told AFP.
Two separate fires at the camps on Friday destroyed scores of shelters, officials said. Two big fires had also hit the camps in January, leaving thousands homeless and gutting four UNICEF schools.
The government has, meanwhile, been pushing for the refugees to be relocated to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal, saying the settlements were too crowded.
So far, 13,000 Rohingya have been moved to the flood-prone island, which critics say is also in the path of deadly cyclones.