Fire at refugee camp on Thai border kills 45

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

A blaze that swept through a camp in northern Thailand has killed at least 45, Thai officials said Saturday, after hundreds of temporary homes for refugees from Myanmar were reduced to ashes.

Dozens of people were injured in the fire, which broke out Friday at the Mae Surin camp in Mae Hong Son Province, with women, children and the elderly believed to account for the majority of the victims. Rescue workers were on the scene at the remote mountainous camp area.

The camp houses 3,700 refugees and displaced people.

Authorities believe the fire was sparked by an unattended cooking flame. A local district official said hot weather, combined with strong winds, caused the fire to spread quickly among the thatched bamboo shelters.

Police on Saturday said around 400 temporary homes had been incinerated, while the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Bureau said a school, clinic and two food warehouses had also been destroyed.

The Thai government pledged an investigation into the fire.

Ten camps strung out along the Thai-Myanmar border are home to a total of 130,000 people who first began arriving in the 1980s. Many of them have fled conflict zones in ethnic areas of Myanmar. Families often live cheek-by-jowl in simple bamboo-and-thatch dwellings.

Many of the camp residents have been registered with the United Nations as refugees, and an ongoing resettlement program has allowed tens of thousands to move to third countries.

After Myanmar’s new quasi-civilian government replaced the long-ruling junta two years ago, Thailand announced it wanted to shut the border camps, raising concern among their residents. But so far their residents have been allowed to stay put and the Thai government has stressed that it will only send them back when it is safe to do so.

Many of the residents are from Myanmar’s eastern Karen state, where the major rebel group Karen National Union signed a ceasefire with the regime last year after decades of civil war.

Vast numbers of people fled the former Myanmar junta’s counterinsurgency campaign, which rights groups say deliberately targeted civilians, driving them from their homes and forcing them to work for the army. Years of war have left the Karen region littered with land mines while development has been held back, leaving dilapidated infrastructure and threadbare education and health services.