South Asia Brief
News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Wednesday.

Bangladesh Refugee Camp Fire Compounds Rohingya’s Hardships

The tragedy is just the latest to strike the community, underscoring Dhaka’s challenge in hosting so many refugees.

Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief and the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.
People look for their belongings after a fire in the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on March 5.
People look for their belongings after a fire in the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on March 5.
People look for their belongings after a fire in the Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on March 5. TANBIR MIRAZ/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: A fire at a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh underscores ongoing hardships for the group; the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee approves Eric Garcetti’s nomination to be the next U.S. ambassador to India, sending him on to the Senate; and Sri Lanka gets a step closer to finalizing a deal with the International Monetary Fund.

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Huge Fire Hits Rohingya Refugee Camp

On Sunday, a massive fire spread across a sprawling refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, that hosts members of the Rohingya Muslim minority who have fled Myanmar since 2017. There were no recorded fatalities. But around 2,000 makeshift homes were destroyed, displacing 12,000 people and destroying schools, a food center, and latrines.

The fire was just the latest tragedy to strike the Rohingya community. More than five years ago, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya poured into Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar, where the marginalized group faced violence at the hands of the military described by the United Nations as ethnic cleansing. Today, about 1.2 million Rohingya—around 50 percent of them children—live in squalid conditions in Cox’s Bazar, in an area of less than seven square miles.

Sunday’s fire underscores the challenge facing Bangladesh’s government in hosting so many people in refugee camps. The fire, which came on the heels of a series of similar incidents, also reflects the broader danger posed by the rapid growth of Bangladeshi cities without sufficient public safety measures. The government acknowledges these problems, but it is constrained by insufficient funding. The international community helps fund support for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, but that aid is declining.

In Cox’s Bazar, residents face significant hardship. The camps have been hit by floods and landslides, highlighting Bangladesh’s climate change vulnerability. There have been more than 300 fire incidents in the camps in recent years, many resulting from gas explosions. Overcrowding, bad infrastructure, and limited water resources mean fires are hard to escape or put out quickly. And many fires are likely set intentionally: According to the Bangladesh Ministry of Defense, there were 222 fires in 2021, and only 99 were deemed accidental.

Some camp residents say insurgents fighting against the military junta in Myanmar have established a presence in Cox’s Bazar and are committing arson out of revenge or intimidation against rival groups. According to Bangladeshi press accounts, last Friday a man claiming to be a member of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) posted a YouTube message warning of serious consequences if “suppression” of the group didn’t cease. The fire came two days later.

Other crimes have threatened the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar: Insurgents and drug gangs are suspected to be behind the killings of several camp leaders in the last year, including that of Mohib Ullah, a prominent Rohingya rights activist hosted at the White House in 2019. Cross-border violence between the Myanmar military and insurgents has also killed and wounded Rohingya refugees.

Bangladesh’s government is in a tough spot. It takes its responsibility for the Rohingya refugees seriously and derives reputational benefits from hosting the group humanely. (While abroad, Bangladeshi officials have highlighted these efforts as success stories.) But the state is clearly struggling to keep the community safe. In recent months, dozens of Rohingya have died at sea after trying to leave Bangladesh by boat. Attempts to reduce overcrowding in the camps—including a controversial plan to send some refugees to a flood-prone island—have generated criticism.

All of this increases incentives to negotiate the repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar. But talks with Myanmar have lagged. The talks were suspended for around a year after the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar; they have also floundered because the countries have been unable to agree on a specific process and timeline. At any rate, the brutal junta inspires little confidence that it would welcome the Rohingya back warmly—which likely makes Bangladesh hesitant to move too quickly.

The latest fire in the camps also exposes another policy challenge: how to keep large, urban populations safe. Industrial accidents are happening at an alarming rate across Bangladesh. On Tuesday, a massive blast killed at least 17 people in a building in the capital, Dhaka; some reports have blamed accumulated gas. These continued accidents are troubling, particularly as Bangladesh is soon to mark the 10-year anniversary of the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which housed five garment factories. The accident killed at least 1,132 people.

Back in Cox’s Bazar, the recurrent tragedies have a deep personal impact: Fire may force the Rohingya to relive the traumas they sought to escape by fleeing Myanmar.

What We’re Following

U.S. Senate committee approves Garcetti nomination. On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 13 to 8 to approve U.S. President Joe Biden’s nomination of former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to be the next U.S. ambassador to India. Democrats on the committee got help from Republican Sens. Bill Hagerty and Todd Young. Garcetti still needs to win a full Senate vote to be confirmed, and it’s unclear when that vote will take place.

There has not been a formal U.S. envoy in New Delhi since early 2021, and the relationship certainly stands to improve with an ambassador in place, especially given the delicate diplomacy needed to navigate New Delhi’s continued partnership with Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden nominated Garcetti in July 2021, but allegations that he didn’t properly address sexual harassment allegations against an aide during his time as mayor have held up the process.

It’s unclear whether Garcetti’s nomination will pass the Senate, as a few Republicans have strongly opposed it. Last year, Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office investigated the allegations and concluded Garcetti “likely knew, or should have known” about the harassment; Garcetti has denied wrongdoing, and Los Angeles’ own investigation concluded he did nothing wrong. Still, the support from Hagerty and Young should help his cause during the vote.

Sri Lanka close to inking IMF deal. Sri Lanka, facing one of the world’s worst economic crises, has taken a major step toward securing a $2.9 million bailout deal from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On Monday, the Export-Import Bank of China sent a letter to Sri Lanka pledging financial assurances for debt restructuring, meaning that all of the country’s creditors have now offered such assurances—a key IMF condition for a deal. In January, the Chinese bank offered a two-year debt moratorium, but the IMF said that didn’t go far enough.

All along, China has been a critical factor for Sri Lanka’s chances of finalizing the IMF deal. By the end of last year, Sri Lanka owed Chinese lenders almost one-fifth of its total public external debt. The bank’s pledge means that the IMF can now present the proposed accord to its executive board, which IMF head Kristalina Georgieva said will happen on March 20. By that point, Sri Lanka will have been waiting about 200 days to finalize the deal since a preliminary staff-level agreement was reached last September.

Police fail to arrest Imran Khan. Last Sunday, police went to former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s house in Lahore to serve him an arrest warrant related to an investigation into alleged illegal purchases and sales of gifts from foreign visitors while he was leader. (Khan and his supporters reject the allegations as politically motivated.) However, the authorities ended up departing without Khan in custody just a few hours later—just the latest example of the police claiming they have an arrest warrant for the opposition leader only to not arrest him.

It’s unclear why Khan wasn’t detained this time: He was at the house, where dozens of his supporters converged after hearing the police were coming. His arrest warrant was later suspended, and he has been asked to attend a March 13 hearing instead. Khan backers say the police fear arresting a politician with such mass support. (The state could also be testing how these supporters will respond.) Khan’s popularity has only grown since he was ousted last April, as the current government fails to ease a severe economic crisis.

Khan will be favored to win national elections later this year, and the arrest threats may be part of an attempt to undermine his ability to contest the election.

Under the Radar

India announced on Tuesday that it will send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan via Iran’s Chabahar port. This will mark the first time the port, run by an Indian company since 2018, has been used to send assistance to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover in 2021. (A previous Indian aid shipment was conveyed over land via Pakistan.) The move shows how, despite expectations to the contrary, India has managed to get along relatively well with the Taliban regime, which said the aid shipment will “lead to mutual positive relations.”

The Chabahar news also highlights how Indian efforts to develop the port are paying off. The port was once thought to be dead in the water because of India’s reluctance to violate the U.S. sanctions regime on Iran, but New Delhi has now invested around $85 million in it. It is envisioned as part of a larger project linking India to Iran, Afghanistan, and onward to Russia and Central Asia. In this regard, it is meant to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has recently faced setbacks—including on projects at the Pakistani port of Gwadar.

A flourishing Chabahar port also helps India make headway in its competition with Pakistan to better access Central Asia, which has vast natural resource reserves. Pakistan has the advantage of a more direct land route.

FP’s Most Read This Week

China’s Ukraine Peace Plan Is Actually About Taiwan by Craig Singleton

Why China Is Not a Superpower by Jo Inge Bekkevold 

Putin Has Assembled an Axis of Autocrats Against Ukraine by Justin Daniels

Regional Voices

In the Express Tribune, writer Komal Salman describes how technology can help strengthen cultural preservation and broader heritage efforts in Pakistan. “It’s true that visiting a space is not quite the same as viewing it on a computer screen, but use of technology can contribute immensely to conservation for research and educational purposes,” she writes.

In the Kathmandu Post, politics expert Khim Lal Devkota lays out the reforms needed to promote political stability in Nepal. These include reducing the number of parliamentarians and preventing a prime minister from serving more than two terms. “For this, it is important to get the attention of all concerned bodies,” he writes. “But are the political actors serious about reforming the core political issues?”

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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