Around 11.30 pm on 12 June, a fire broke out at a Rohingya refugee camp in Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar area razing over 50 makeshift shanties and leaving about 270 residents homeless. The next day, residents told me that most of them lost all their possessions to the fire, including identity proofs such as cards given by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “We barely escaped with the clothes on our back,” Saleema Begum, a 22-year-old resident, said. While no one knew how the fire began, many refugees said there was a concerted effort to harass them. They used to earlier stay in a camp in the adjacent Kalindi Kunj area, till it was burned down in 2018. According to activists I spoke to, the Madanpur Khadar camp was built on land owned by the Uttar Pradesh government’s irrigation department, which wanted to evict the refugees.
No deaths or injuries were reported from the fire, but residents told me about the losses they had endured. When we met on 13 June, Begum was among women and children who were huddled under a shed next to a mosque at the camp, taking shelter from the scorching afternoon sun. “All of us broke our backs trying to rebuild our lives here, saved up money for our children’s education, bought expensive things like coolers so our children can live comfortably through the summer,” she said. “Now all is lost.”
While some residents lined up for food and provisions that non-profits and Delhi government officials were distributing that day, others sifted through the ashes that were once their home, looking for scrap metal to sell. One such resident, 27-year-old Mohammed Noor Quasim, told me he had saved more than Rs 30,000 over the last two years by setting aside about Rs 1,000 from his salary each month. He put these savings in an earthen pot. “I have no bank account so I put it in that pot,” Quasim told me. “But all of it got burnt. The fire was spreading so quickly, either we could save our lives or our possessions.”
“It took not more than 15–20 minutes, and we lost everything,” Ahmed Kabir, a 23-year-old who leads a youth club at the camp, told me. Like others, Kabir said he is unsure of what caused the fire, but knew that it originated from a shanty at the camp that had been abandoned for a few months. He said its owner was currently living in rented accommodation outside the camp. “All her belongings were in there but she wasn’t there when the fire broke out, neither was anyone else,” Kabir said. “We don’t know if someone set fire to the camp or if this was an accident. No one can claim anything for sure yet.” Delhi police officials who were present on the ground told me that the they were still investigating the source of the fire and had collected samples of wires from that shanty to ascertain whether the cause was an electric short circuit.