A Rohingya refugee camp blaze in Bangladesh serves as a stark reminder that the world's rising radicalism has a shared common cause.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Imagine losing everything again, and again, and again.

In Kutupalong, a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, some 12,000 human beings didn’t have to imagine a thing this Sunday, when a fire razed 2,000 shelters in what is considered the world’s largest refugee camp. Also wiped out were 35 mosques, 21 learning centers, and an array of water depots and informal workshops, where locals had been attempting to make a livelihood.

This is just the latest blaze in the fragile home of Muslim refugees from Buddhist Myanmar. In March 2021, some 50,000 were displaced and 12 died after fire raged through the overcrowded settlement. Bangladesh government reports that, over the 2021 to 2022 period, at least 60 of the 222 fire incidents were acts of arson.

Since 2017, Rohingya people have been fleeing Myanmar’s genocidal violence into camps such as this one, which even with its expansion site is now overflowing, bearing some 600,000 human beings within official lines and over 880,000 in total. On top of tensions with nearby Bangladeshi citizens, many of whom are frustrated by perceived competition for local jobs and the inevitability of some criminal enterprise among the destitute, residents of these camps also face complex conflicts with local elephant populations, as their human settlement encroaches on historical migratory routes and meets with inter-species reprisal.

Earlier in March, residents were protesting a drop in UN food voucher cuts from $12 to $10 per person, while the World Food Programme warned that further cuts will be necessary without improved funding, after a 125 million dollar shortfall. Now, with this latest blaze, many have lost everything again.

In February, we saw similar cycles of destruction after the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, which significantly impacted refugee populations, including many residents who had already undergone displacement pressures multiple times. We are now a species of eight billion, and some 90 million of us have been forcibly displaced.

These are increasingly normal events for our species, even if our global thinking has not caught up. The number of refugees is set to rise either directly through environmental crises, or indirectly, through civil wars and their laundry list of demographic excuses to isolate certain humans from scarce internal resources.

And this is where a secular block, as it comes to rise in the West, has a distinct opportunity to see past preceding divisions, to recognize overarching pressure points impeding human agency, and to set new terms of debate around international policy.

Within these same camps, for instance, Rohingya women may well have fled sexualized violence in Myanmar, but they now endure similar in their communities. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army moves through refugee camps and intimidates women seeking divorce or advocating for women’s rights, including to an education. Women and girls in the camps are targeted by sex traffickers promising a way out, and often feel compelled to marry Rohingyan men in neighboring countries as an alternative to kidnapping. Men, too, are terrorized by this outfit; when Rohingya leader Mohid Ullah spoke out against ARSA’s activities, he was assassinated in 2021.

Simplistic readings of the world, especially along stark religious and ethnocentric lines, allow us to rest on our laurels in the secular sphere. However, they most dangerously fail to account for the phenomenon we’re seeing accelerate in recent years. Under resource scarcity, amid threats to livelihood or imminent poverty, humans are increasingly inclined toward radical, rigid, and exploitative religious and political positions. The more that people live in precarity, the more vulnerable they are to becoming pawns or victims in these systems of harm.

Unfortunately, our local extremists, such as the rise of Christian nationalism in the US, can easily distract us from addressing the world’s larger sociological crises. Which is what many extremists want: to be the center of attention, to leave us all believing that fighting them head-on is the only way to build a healthier world.

Yes, the escalation of hate-driven legislation on local fronts should absolutely be a site of concern. But so too should the increasing precarity of human beings across the globe, as evidenced by this latest fire at the world’s largest refugee camp. Moreover, it’s not a competition: refusing to fuel toxic fires around identity anywhere allows us to focus on the root cause of extremism everywhere. Devastation such as we see after earthquake, flood, war, and fire is only the first wave of harm caused by socially destabilizing events. Wherever the essential needs of human beings are not being met, opportunities for radicalism, under any number of pseudo-religious or loosely ethno-specific banners, are more likely to grow.

Why, then, do we not seek to cut the problem off at its source?

Prevention now is the path to keeping future extremist groups at bay.

Avatar photo

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.