Humanitarian response to the March 22nd fire in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp

Posted on: March 23, 2021 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry, Refugee humanitarians

This post updated 9:00AM Wednesday EST.

Humanitarian refugees gut punched by fire
In the last couple years I have been honored to work with many Rohingya refugees. Countless interviews, text chats, and discussions have led to writing a series of blog posts, having one (Pan Thar) as a guest in my sociology class, and even co-authoring a poem with another (Ro Anamal Hasan).

We have spent the last year trading stories and fears about the Covid-19 pandemic. These (mostly) young women and men have inspired me and challenged my understanding of what it means to witness.

Photo credit D.W. Morwan, Rohingya refugee

I heard about the fire by reading their many feverish updates on Facebook and Twitter; my heart sank. As a 12 year old I was awoken by my father in the middle of the night, our apartment aflame. We made it out, but the trauma of that night lives with me. Even with that memory I can only imagine what the many affected Rohingya are feeling now.

Paul Farmer of Partners in Health used the phrase “acute-on-chronic” to describe the 2010 earthquake event in Haiti. This massive Cox’s Bazar fire can be similarly described, a gut punch to a Rohingya population already weakened by genocide and displacement.

Read below for details about this fire and for suggestions on how you can help immediately.

Some details about the March 22nd fire in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp
Monday, a massive fire swept through large sections of the world’s largest refugee camp located in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Raging uncontrolled for 10 hours, the fire left 50,000 refugees displaced from an area where approximately 2,000 structures had housed families, small businesses, makeshift schools, and a large 24 hour health clinic (these numbers may change as more details emerge). Tragically and ironically two World Food Program (WFP) nutrition centers and one General Food Distribution building went up in flames as well.

Here and here and here are news accounts of the event. Watch here a short video shot by my close contact Zayed Jack using his camera phone.

The humanitarian response
The response from the UN and INGOs has begun, and as I write this food is being distributed, temporary shelters

IOM shelter in CXB
Photo credit Zayed Jack

are being erected, and cluster meetings of all the major response actors are taking place. To be expected, there are immediate needs left unmet given the many logistical challenges being faced in responding to this event.

Help is needed. Here is a GoFundMe site where you can donate now. Please consider contributing what you can but also support efforts by your government, UN agencies, and the many INGOs that are working in Cox’s Bazar (e.g., Danish Refugee Council [DRC], Save the Children, Food for the Hungry, and World Vision).

Refugee humanitarians saving lives
As with all other humanitarian disasters, it was the affected community which responded first to the fires. Here are just two examples of heroic action taken by Rohingya refugees I am proud to know.

My contact and friend Zayed Jack reports that as soon as he saw what was happening he helped as much as he could and,

 “…rescued many disabled people and took them to safely. But I couldn’t save an old disabled man who was inside his house. When I saw him the fire became so strong that I was unable to go [inside] because of the heat.” 

Zayed reports that the UN and major INGOs are reacting to the event, but that many are just now beginning to face the grief of losing homes and, in some cases, family members.

Another Rohingya refugee I heard from is named D.M. Morwan. He lost everything in the fire including all of his documents. He checked in with me and said,

This is what D.M. Morwan’s house looks like now.

“Yes sir I’m okay from fire, but my shelter is not okay, and now I’m sleeping on road.”

When I noted that refugees were the first to respond to the fire he told me, yes, and that he,

“…helped by saving two children from the fire. They were two boys, 5 and 6 years old. I didn’t know who are they but they are human like me that’s why I saved them. I just saved them from the fire and then I investigated then I found their parents. They are okay now.”

Poet and activist Mayyu Ali reports,

“…my family and I are also fully affected by this massive fire. My parents and I fled during the violence in August, 2017 when my home and village were burnt down by Burmese security forces. Since then we have been living in this refugee camp relying on humanitarian aid. We are 7 of us in our family. Yesterday’s massive fire burnt my shelter and the shop of my brother.”

Mayyu Ali administers the poetry site Art Garden of the Rohingya, and he was just one of the many poets, including Zayed, D.M., and my poem co-author Ro Anamal Hasan, who are now suffering from this disaster.

Pan Thar, poet, photographer, and humanitarian is co-founder of Rohingya Youth Community (RYC)  and he has rallied this active group of refugee humanitarians to offer a wide range of support to those immediately in need. Although he is still reeling from the fact that his home was completely destroyed by the fire he is using all of his organizational skills to help other fire victims.

The Rohingya I have highlighted above illustrate the fact that in times of humanitarian crisis those affected move into action with speed, urgency, and a thorough knowledge of the cultural nuances of the situation.

Moved to act
As I keep reading more and more fire-related Tweets and FaceBook updates from Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar I am saddened by the sheer volume of pain and suffering now being endured. But at the same time I am buoyed by memories of all of the conversations I have had with these individuals in the past and in knowing the depth of resilience they possess. But I am also moved to act in response to this disaster and have made (and will continue to make) offers of support. As the celebration of Ramadan nears, the power of faith will serve the Rohingya well, and in a few months this most recent trauma will be recovered from with grace and strength.

Photo credit Zayed Jack

In the meantime, now help is needed, and if you are able I ask again that you please support Andy Riley’s GoFundMe page. He says in this appeal that,

“People need immediate assistance, we are working to raise $5,000 to send directly to a trusted Rohingya organizer on the ground. This money will be used to immediately pay for clothing, food, water, shelter, and medical care. The benefit of donating to this GFM is that there is no middleman and nothing will be used for admin costs. Every penny will go directly to those in the Rohingya community that need urgent assistance.”

A second GoFundMe page organized by humanitarian Jessica Onley is here. She writes,

“As always, members of the affected population are amongst the first responders. Networks of refugee youth have spent the last several hours rescuing people, reuniting displaced families, and setting up emergency shelters. Starting tomorrow, they aim to provide meals and other support to the newly homeless.

Humanitarian agencies will undoubtedly provide the bulk of the emergency response but we are setting up this fundraiser to help fill gaps and provide immediate support. 100% of contributions will go directly to the emergency response. 

We will provide more updates about the situation as we learn more. Many families are still separated and people are missing.”

If you have comments, questions, or feedback please contact me here.

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

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