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Thousands of refugees homeless in Nepal after fire razes camp

Press Releases, 2 March 2008

2 March 2008

GENEVA Thousands of refugees from Bhutan in eastern Nepal are homeless after a devastating fire swept through Goldhap refugee camp Saturday night, burning 80 percent of the camp to the ground and injuring seven refugees.

"This is a disaster and an absolutely traumatic event for the refugees," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "We are urgently mobilising all resources, with a lot of help from the government, to get them shelter, food and comfort."

It is estimated that 7,000 of the 9,000 refugees in Goldhap Camp in Jhapa Province, close to the Indian border, are now homeless. Only 228 of the 1,512 traditional thatched huts in the camp survived the fire.

When the blaze broke out around 7 p.m. local time, refugees fled into the open and to schools and communal buildings to seek safety from the fire, which spread rapidly through the huts built closely together. Refugees battled alongside the fire brigades called in from around the region, bringing the blaze under control after three hours. The seven refugees who were injured were released from hospital on Sunday. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

"It is a huge relief that despite the severity of the blaze, no lives were lost and those who were injured have now been released from hospital," said Guterres. "What is incredibly precious to the refugees are their personal belongings and documents proving their identity," he added.

A major resettlement operation to third countries is on the verge of getting underway for some of the 108,000 refugees from Bhutan who have been living in seven camps in eastern Nepal since the early 1990s.

Immediate emergency assistance from UNHCR, the Nepalese government and non-governmental organisations is now pouring into the area to help the refugees. Local residents living near the camp have also been very supportive, providing emergency shelter and food.

Guterres praised the rapidity and level of response from the government and aid organisations in responding to the disaster. An emergency committee has been set up by the local authorities to coordinate assistance and investigate the cause of the fire. The government and Nepali Red Cross will distribute emergency food packages and plastic sheeting and build emergency communal shelters. UNHCR will provide cash grants to refugees to help them reconstruct their homes. Other aid organisations, some with financial assistance from UNHCR, are providing emergency sanitation, cooking kits and tarpaulins for shelter. The World Food Programme will replenish stocks of food destroyed in the fire. Another aid organisation has already delivered immediate food supplies to the refugees.

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A new life for refugees from BhutanPlay video

A new life for refugees from Bhutan

They fled to Nepal from Bhutan amid ethnic tensions in the early 1990s. Now, many of the slightly more than 100,000 refugees have been offered the possibility of resettlement to another country.