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UN agencies ramp up response for Rohingya refugees in wake of ‘unprecedented’ fire

The blaze destroyed about 9,500 shelters and also reduced to ashes over 1,600 vital facilities, including hospitals, schools, and food and aid distribution centres. As of Tuesday, at least 11 people are confirmed to have perished in the fire and over 300 are still missing.  

Richard Ragan, UN World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director in Bangladesh, said that the scale of the fire was “unprecedented” and that the agency is “determined” to help those affected get their lives back to normal as quickly as possible. 

“WFP, together with our partners and thousands of volunteers, have supported the families since the start of the tragedy, in meeting their most urgent needs of food and water. Where two of our nutrition centres once stood, debris were cleared in record time, stocks were replenished, and services resumed for children and their mothers”, he said. 

According to WFP, its top priority now is providing food to affected families, until they can have access to shelters and cooking stoves. It aims to reopen electronic voucher outlets to allow families to purchase staple and fish foods. 

The agency has also erected temporary structures, from which it is providing breastfeeding support and counselling to mothers, and additional food to children under five.

“We are determined to do what we can to help them get their lives back to normal as quickly as possible”, Mr. Ragan added. 

Mental health and psychosocial support 

The UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have also upped their response, deploying mental health and psychosocial support teams to help refugees who lost everything in the fire. So far, over 5,000 people have been provided with emotional and psychosocial support, and more than 700 with psychological first aid. 

IOM also engaged over 11,500 cash-for-work laborers to help clear debris and support reconstruction. 

UNHCR teams on the ground are monitoring the safety and security of refugees, and working to address the needs of separated children, spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said. 

“Since the fire, together with our partners, we’ve identified more than 600 separated girls and boys who have been reunited with their families. Our protection partners also established two child protection helplines and four reunification help desks”, he added. 

A mother receives nutrition support for her acutely malnourished children at UNICEF’s temporary treatment centre, after the main centre was destroyed in the fire.

Refugee volunteers supporting response 

Refugee volunteers are also supporting affected families, according to the UNHCR spokesperson. They were among the first responders to help combat the blaze and since then have been helping older refugees, children and pregnant women find shelters, escorting people to health care facilities, and identifying and referring refugees with specific needs to relevant services. 

“They are also running awareness sessions on child protection risks such as child-trafficking and gender-based violence, fire safety, first aid and general assistance”, Mr. Mahecic added. 

The UNHCR spokesperson also called for additional resources to address the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic fire. 

“[We are] asking government and private sector donors to keep their contributions flexible, thus allowing their use across the overall operation.” 

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