2,300 refugees left homeless
At least 35 dead at camp in Mae Hong Son as search for bodies continuesAt least 35 refugees from Myanmar are believed to have died with over 100 injured - six of them seriously - following a devastating fire at a camp in Mae Hong Son's Khun Yuam district late on Friday.
Some 2,300 refugees found themselves without shelter for a second night yesterday (Sat) after a day which saw local authorities searching for bodies amid the charred debris at Mae Surin camp.
Mae Hong Son Governor Narumon Palawat said yesterday that 35 people were killed in the blaze, giving a reduced toll.
"The final death toll is 35. There was confusion in the body count," she said. The governor earlier told reporters that officials had found 42 bodies in the camp. Later Khun Yuam assistant district official Samreong Sudsawad said that as of noon yesterday, there were 45 deaths - with 12 more bodies in addition to 33 found previously.
The fire broke out around 4pm on Friday at Ban Mae Surin, which sheltered some 3,000 refugees, mostly ethnic Karen who fled fighting between rebel groups and the Myanmar military. Although the fire was brought under control about two hours later, some 420 makeshift homes were destroyed as they were made of highly flammable bamboo and leaf roofs. Security agencies forbid the refugees building shelters with safer non-flammable materials as they regard the camps as only temporary, despite having been first set up 29 years ago.
With more than 2,300 people left homeless, local authorities and private groups provided plastic sheets and tools for tents, set up two kilometres from the scene, and placed the elderly and children at nearby churches and schools.
A military source at the camp said the reason why so many were killed was because the fire quickly engulfed the camp hospital - many patients were unable to be evacuated in time.
Narumon, who visited the camp, said the authorities had set up three co-ordination centres at the city, Khun Yuam district and the scene to aid the affected. Meanwhile, officials were searching for more bodies, trying to identify those retrieved and asking refugees about missing relatives.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) dispatched two teams with rescue staff yesterday to provide 800 tents to help the affected.
"We are deeply saddened by this tragic incident and doing what we can to provide instant relief," UNHCR's Thailand representative Mireille Girard said in a statement.
The refugees were in need of drinking water, clothes, tents and medical supplies. Many agencies tried to send in food, relief items and aid but faced difficulties, Narumon said.
It takes over two hours to access the area, located 80 kilometres from Mae Hong Son, because of limited access by a curvy mountain route. The area also has no phone reception, so officials mainly communicated via military radio.
An Army Region 3 helicopter brought in to take bodies and the injured out of the area also faced poor visibility from haze that shrouded the province. She said the army plans to send another helicopter today to deliver relief.
Centres have been set up in each district in Mae Hong Son to raise donations, while the province also opened a Krung Thai Bank account under the name "Ngern Chauleu Phuprasob Akkheepai Soon Pakping Mae Surin" (Fund to aid the fire-affected people at Ban Mae Surin camp) number 508-0-256-109 to get donations.
The governor said the fire started when a refugee in Zone 1 was cooking. Strong wind swept sparks from the fire onto a flammable grass roof, which caused the blaze to spread quickly from Zone 1 to Zone 4.
The Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR), a Thai NGO in charge of this camp, said its three offices at the camp were damaged as well as a TBC warehouse for relief items, an IRC clinic, an office for a women's organisation, two school buildings and two dormitories for orphans. COERR plans to fix the facilities later but would focus first on aiding the homeless, officials said, urging donations, especially winter clothing, as the area is cold at night-time.
More than 140,00 people live in nine camps for refugees along the Myanmar border. Four of these are located in Mae Hong Son, with another three in Tak, and one each in Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi provinces.