No Safe Haven: Refugee Camps on Fire

Last week, while reading about Boko Haram, I learned about the Muna Garage refugee camp on the eastern edge of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, Nigeria. Muna Garage is a camp for some 40,000 internally displaced people (IDP) displaced by the Boko Haram conflict.

Wakkil Alli Matama, 60, and his family at Muna Garage IDP camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria, 2016 (UNICEF/UN028899/Esiebo)

Muna Garage is like all the other displacement camps in the region—overcrowded, underserviced, and grim. Squeezed onto a small patch of private land are former farmers, traders, and professionals, forced to flee the years of Boko Haram attacks, and now dependent on the authorities and their humanitarian partners.

On 23 May 2020, a fire broke out in the camp killing two IDPs, an adult and a child, and several others were injured. 1,613 makeshift shelters burned down, affecting 1,613 households. An unknown number of animals also got burned.

Neither the fire nor the camp have any mention on Wikipedia, only the city of Maiduguri—home to over half a million people. Aside from a humanitarian bulletin and some local news coverage, the fire and its impact on thousands of lives were largely ignored by the world and its press. This isn’t surprising as displaced people rarely get any news coverage. And without any attention given, the world moves on and returns to its standard state: ignorance.

This made me think:

How many camps sheltering forcibly displaced men, women and, most worryingly, children burned to the ground last year?

The sad reality is the answer isn’t zero. And it’s not just one.

Settlements of displaced people, whether refugees or internally displaced people, are particularly prone to fires. Such vulnerability is due, among other factors, to the combustible nature of housing materials commonly used in camps, the methods and fuels for cooking, heating, and lighting, and the densely built nature of many sites.

While the impacts of recorded fires are clear, there are no global statistics focused on fires in humanitarian settings. 

Although most Europeans will know nothing about Muna Garage nor the plight of its residents, many will remember the refugee camp fire that was closer to home and actually got some press.

On 8 September 2020–one year ago today–a fire swept through Moria Reception and Identification Centre located on the Greek island of Lesbos burning every single shelter. At the time, Moria was the largest refugee camp in Europe, housing more than 12,000 asylum seekers. Enclosed with barbed wire and a chain-link fence, the military camp was described by Human Rights Watch as an open air prison.

In August 2018, it was dubbed by the field coordinator of Doctors Without Borders as “the worst refugee camp on earth.” Luca Fontana, MSF Lesbos coordinator said:

“I’ve never seen the level of suffering we are witnessing here every day”

The camp was built to accommodate around 3,000 people, however there were around 20,000 people living in the camp in summer 2020, among whom 6,000 to 7,000 were children under the age of 18.

Shamed into action, Europe moved 400 unaccompanied minors off the island – something that should have been done much earlier on humanitarian grounds, but instead needed a fire to achieve. This left 95% of the children who weren’t unaccompanied behind, and disturbingly, on the street.

When these homeless asylum seekers protested, Greek police fired tear gas.

A woman cleans her eyes with water after police threw tear gas during clashes near the city Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos on 12 September. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Eventually, around 7,000 people were moved to Kara Tepe II, a quickly erected, makeshift camp on a windswept, lead-contaminated, flood-prone patch of land next to the sea. The sanitation facilities in Kara Tepe II are inadequate, and refugees are only provided two meals a day, often consisting of rotten, inedible food. I witnessed these conditions firsthand, volunteering in Kara Tepe II just one month after the fire. And things don’t seem to be improving.

Nearly nine months after a fire destroyed the Moria refugee camp on the Greek Aegean island of Lesbos, work on a new reception center has still not begun. The European Commission said it will support the Greek government with the building project, pledging €276 million for the construction of new camps on five of the Greek Aegean Islands (Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos) in late March.

UN agencies, human rights organizations and migrant aid organizations like Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have repeatedly condemned the conditions at the new Kara Tepe camp and the other tent cities on the Greek Islands in the Agean Sea.

In a June report, MSF denounced the suffering on the Greek Islands and called on the EU to end its policy of “detention and deterrence”. In the report, MSF says they have “provided care to 180 people who had self-harmed or attempted suicide, with two-thirds being children” over a period of two years.

The world has largely ignored the refugee crisis. And the human beings left to fend for themselves.

The Situation is Only Getting Worse

Today, there are more refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) than at any point since World War II. UNHCR currently counts at least 82.4 million people around the world—1 in every 95 people on earth—who have been forced to flee their homes. Among them are nearly 26.4 million refugees.

Driven from their homes by conflict, persecution, environmental calamity, or dire economic straits, these refugees—more than half of whom are children—have been deprived of their statehood, material possessions, and in many cases, their loved ones. They seek solace in purpose-built refugee camps and unplanned settlements, where they wait out their displacement, or attempt to begin life anew.

More than 30 million forcibly displaced persons are school-aged. There is a lack of data on school enrollment for forcibly displaced persons.

Most of the world’s refugee camps were designed as temporary facilities. However, many have grown and developed into fully fledged cities, replete with vibrant economies, systems of governance, and civic institutions. 

Refugee camps are monuments to human suffering, and the sheer size of these settlements testifies to the severity of forced displacement around the world.

Living in a Tinderbox

Researchers found that there was a 25-fold increase in the rate of settlement fires from 1990 to 2015 (0.002 to 0.051 per 100,000 refugees, respectively). Of the 1,521 records retrieved, 131 reports described settlement fires in 31 hosting countries since 1990. These incidents resulted in 487 deaths, 790 burn injuries, displacement of 382,486 individuals and destruction of 50,509 shelters.

Number and rate of fires in displaced persons settlements worldwide, 1990-2015. (Kazerooni et al.)

All of this could be avoided. Either morally, by resettling refugees out of harms way.

But even for the more callous, we could make camps safe from total destruction by fire through proper construction and resources. But this costs money.

The UN body to help people forcibly displaced is chronically underfunded. Nearly every single region that UNHCR helps has half of the funds needed to provide proper services, like fire prevention. It’s shameful.

If the West continues to ignore the millions of forcibly displaced, the fires will continue to burn.

In Lebanon, just after Christmas last year, a fire destroyed the entire al-Miniyeh camp and forced all 370 Syrian refugees who lived there to flee.

The al-Miniyeh camp housed about 75 families (Ibrahim Chalhoub/AFP)

In Bangladesh, less than six months ago, a fire broke out at the world’s largest refugee camp—Cox’s Bazar, home to over 600,000 Rohingya refugees. Thousands of refugees lost their homes. Health centres, distribution points and other facilities were also affected.

Smoke rises after a fire at the Rohingya refugee camp in Balukhali, Bangladesh. The fire destroyed hundreds of shelters and left thousands homeless, officials and witnesses said. (Shafiqur Rahman / Associated Press)

These stories are sad, but mostly they’re a shameful indictment of our so-called leaders, who stand by and let these stories repeat while they do little.

We have the resources to solve this problem. Hell, when the Notre Dame cathedral caught fire in 2019, it generated more press than all of these stories combined. And raised €880 million in less than a day!

We need to create a future world where all refugees and asylum seekers are welcomed with open arms and keys to a safe home. We need to ignore the isolationist politicians who are happy to go to war but never happy to face the consequences when people seek refuge.

We need to help the 48 million internally displaced people to have safe shelter while they wait to go home.

We should, at the very least, save them from having to flee a fire after fleeing so much else.

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