Fire Tears Through Refugee Camp

Thousands of Burmese refugees are left homeless after a blaze ignites at a camp in Thailand.
2012-02-23
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A screen grab shows a fire raging through the Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp in western Thailand, Feb. 23, 2012.
A screen grab shows a fire raging through the Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp in western Thailand, Feb. 23, 2012.
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A camp on the Thai border housing refugees from Burma was decimated by fire Thursday, with nearly 1,000 houses destroyed and more than 6,000 people made homeless, according to a consortium of aid agencies and camp officials.

Some 20 people were injured, but no deaths were reported in the fire that destroyed nearly one-third of the Umpiem Mai camp in western Tak province populated by around 17,000 refugees.

Saw Wah Hti, chairman of the camp in Mae Sot town, told RFA in an interview that the fire was triggered by a gas explosion around noon and had torn through five of the camp’s 16 zones.

“About 20 were injured, but no cases of death. We had to tear down the roofs of 615 houses to prevent the fire from spreading throughout the camp.”

Saw Wah Hti said that three fire engines arrived on the scene nearly an hour after the blaze began and had brought the situation under control within 30 minutes.

A staffer from the nearby Mae Tao clinic, which treats the Burmese refugee population in western Thailand, said he heard that two infants had died in the fire, but RFA was unable to confirm the report.

Sally Thompson of the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), which provides food and shelter at ten border camps in the area, said that she had heard of children suffering burns in the fire, according to Agence France-Presse.

She said more than 1,000 homes, three mosques and two nursery schools had been destroyed in the blaze and that some 6,500 people had been left homeless.

UmpiemMaiCamp-Thailand-400.jpg

Strong winds

Strong winds fueled the flames, according to some refugees.

They said they tried to fight the fire, but it was too big and spread too fast across the houses built of wood, bamboo and thatch.

“Because of the wind, it spread quickly,” one victim told Mizzima News Agency, a Burmese exile news group.

“People, together with their children, ran helter-skelter toward open fields where there was safety. They couldn’t carry anything.”

Most of the residents of the quarters that were destroyed are Muslim, residents said, according to Mizzima.

Camp conditions

Residents are not allowed to leave the camp and were forced to find a place to stay with relatives or friends on the site, while camp officials said they would begin providing materials for the homeless to rebuild as well as food.

Around 136,000 people live in 10 total camps in Thailand along the border with Burma. The Burmese refugees, many of whom fled conflict zones in the country’s far-flung ethnic border regions, first began arriving in Thailand in the 1980s.

Many others live undocumented outside of the camps without access to assistance and forced to work illegally to make ends meet for themselves and their families.

After Burma’s nominally civilian government took power in March last year, Thailand said it would seek to close the camps when safe to do so, leading to concerns amongst the mostly ethnic refugees who say recent ceasefire agreements negotiated with their groups are tenuous.

The United States and the European Union have made peace with armed ethnic groups a condition for the lifting of political and economic sanctions against Burma, aside from releasing political prisoners and other key reforms after decades of harsh military rule.

Reported by RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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