Crisis within a crisis: Rohingya refugee children separated from their parents in a fire
UNICEF races to reunite children with their parents after Cox’s Bazar blaze sends families scattering By UNICEF
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Giggling with her little sister, eight-year-old Nazum, does not look like a child who nearly died when fire swept her home in Cox’s Bazar refugee camp in March 2022.
The blaze, the second fire to rip through Rohingya refugee camp 5 this year, destroyed hundreds of shelters and sent families fleeing for safety. In the panic and chaos, many children like Nazum and her 11-month-old sister Zahanara*, were separated from their parents.
Nazum happily plays as her father, Sohita, describes the horrifying moment when he realized two of his children were missing. The little girl seems, mercifully, oblivious to the danger she was in as well as her parents’ agony at being separated from her after the disaster.
The family had been resting when the fire broke out and were woken up from their nap by piercing screams and the commotion of people running. They smelled smoke before seeing the flames.
“I remember panicking and telling everyone to run. The children were all over, and we all ran out of the house away from the raging fire towards safety,” Sohita says.
Four hours later, when the fire had been put out, Sohita realized Zahanara, his youngest child, and Nazum were missing. None of the neighbours had seen them.
“I had last seen them ahead of me with my wife, they disappeared in the smoke and I thought they were safe,” he says sobbing.
For Sohita and his wife, Aisha, this was beginning of the longest night of their lives. They had already suffered unimaginable loss, having fled Myanmar at the peak of violence against the Rohingya ethnic minority. They arrived in Bangladesh hoping for a new life and to put their traumatic experience behind them. But the fire, and the fear that their daughters were lost forever, shattered their peace.
The morning after
In the morning, Sohita learnt that more than 500 shelters, including his, had been burned to the ground in the fire which also left at least 2,000 people homeless.
Several facilities including a health centre, mosques and communal bathrooms had also been destroyed. Some people had been injured in the fracas.
Sohita’s heart sank when he heard that a child had died in the fire. But his spirits lifted when he heard that many children, who had been separated from their families, were being housed by the camp authorities.
“I did not know whether to be happy or sad. I did not want to raise my family’s hopes so I went to meet the authorities without telling anyone,” he says.
Rushing over to one of the UNICEF-supported Help Desks set up by the Department of Social Services to reunite children with their families, Sohita could not believe his eyes: Nazum and Zahanara playing. They were safe and they were together.
Reuniting families is crucial
“When children are separated from their families, they are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including sexual exploitation, trafficking and gender-based violence. They are also more likely to drop out of school,” says UNICEF Bangladesh Emergency Manager, Michael Juma.
“It is a highly traumatic experience with long-term consequences for their safety and development, our primary focus therefore is to facilitate fast reunification.”
For Sohita and those affected by the fire, UNICEF is providing psychosocial support and rehabilitating the facilities lost in the fire.
While their homes are being rebuilt, the victims of the fire are staying temporarily in a UNICEF-supported learning centre until they can go back home and restart life, again.
Although Sohita lost everything he owns in the fire, he managed to reunite his family. Anguish quickly turned into relief and joy.
*not their real names