Fire razes refugee camp in Nepal; aid rushed to the homeless

News Stories, 3 March 2008

© UNHCR
A bird's-eye view of the devastation caused by fire at Goldhap refugee camp.

GOLDHAP CAMP, Nepal, March 3 (UNHCR) A devastating fire swept through the Goldhap camp in eastern Nepal at the weekend leaving thousands of refugees from Bhutan homeless and around 100 slightly injured.

The government, which is coordinating relief efforts at Goldhap with the help of UNHCR, began on Sunday afternoon distributing plastic sheeting for shelter and food packs to the estimated 8,000 people left homeless by Saturday's fire, which destroyed almost 90 percent of the camp buildings.

The UN refugee agency distributed 150 plastic sheets on Sunday as well as bamboo for building new huts, while the World Food Programme (WFP) provided an initial two-day mixed ration of rice and wheat-soya blend for the refugees. The Nepalese army has constructed some 200 emergency shelters in the camp.

UN aid agencies and non-governmental organizations [NGO] were rushing more aid Monday to Goldhap, one of seven camps in eastern Nepal housing some 108,000 refugees who left Bhutan in the early 1990s. The government has started giving financial assistance of about 500 rupees (US$8) per family.

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

The cause of the blaze, which swept quickly through the camp's closely packed bamboo huts, is under investigation. Initials reports suggest it was an accident.

Camp residents said they only had time to save themselves. "I was inside my hut, cooking food. Suddenly, I heard people shouting and screaming. When I went out, I saw huge flames approaching my hut," said Lok Nath Mishra, who lost everything in the fire. "I fled with my family members and children."

"I did not have time to take anything. My family was the most important. We lost everything, including all our official documents," added Mishra as he sifted through the remains of his hut. Personal documents are very important to the refugees because they prove their identity.

When the blaze broke out on Saturday night, refugees and fire brigades battled for three hours to bring the fire under control. The homeless refugees found shelter under trees, with locals or in the few buildings left unscathed, including the camp school, the clinic, an emergency communal shelter and some huts.

Despite the extensive material damage, there were no serious casualties. "As of Monday, some 100 refugees have received medical treatment in the camp health facilities and eight at the local hospital," said Nirmal Rimal of the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia-Nepal, a UNHCR implementing partner.

Refugees and UNHCR welcomed the fast response to the disaster. "I am grateful to everyone for their support to us in this very difficult situation. I received food and financial assistance of 500 rupees from the government," said Kamala Pokherel, sitting with her two children under a temporary shelter.

"The emergency response by the Nepalese government, UN agencies, NGOs and the local population has been remarkable and we are extremely grateful for their strong support," added Daisy Dell, UNHCR's representative in Nepal.

Aside from the financial and material help from the government and UN agencies, humanitarian organizations some with UNHCR financial assistance have started to distribute hygiene kits, cooking utensils, tarpaulins and clothes for children. Local residents living near the camp have also been very supportive, providing emergency shelter and food.

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency will provide cash grants to refugees to help them cover their basic needs, while WFP will replenish food stocks lost in the fire and hopes to resume a two-week ration distribution.

A major resettlement operation to third countries is on the verge of getting under way for some of the refugees from Bhutan in eastern Nepal, including people in Goldhap.

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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.