At least 15 people drowned when an overloaded boat carrying 138 Rohingya refugees to Malaysia struck a slab of coral in shallow water and capsized in the Bay of Bengal on Tuesday, the Bangladeshi coast guard and survivors said.
Rescuers saved 72 people after the 40-foot wooden boat capsized off the southern island of St. Martin’s, according to Lt. Comdr. Sohel Rana, chief of the coast guard station in Teknaf, a sub-district in Cox’s Bazar district.
“The boat capsized on their way to Malaysia near St. Martin’s,” Rana told BenarNews. “We’ve recovered 15 bodies.”
Among the rescued passengers were 46 women and four children, he said, adding that two of the survivors were Bangladesh citizens,
One of the survivors who identified himself as Abdul also told BenarNews that he dialed the emergency number 999 and asked the coast guard to launch a rescue operation after the trawler began taking on water.
“Our boat capsized after it had hit a big slab of sunken stone near St. Martin’s,” Abdul said.
“Coast guard reached the spot immediately, but we were 138 in that wooden boat,” he said. “Many are still missing.”
A man named Zubair, another survivor from the Balukhali Rohingya camp, also confirmed to BenarNews that the boat hit what he described as a “stone slab” before it sank.
But Coast Guard spokesman Hamidul Islam blamed overloading.
“The boat was meant to carry maximum 50 people,” he told AFP news service. “The boat was also loaded with some cargo. “
Two survivors told BenarNews that they each spent 30,000 taka (about $353) as a down payment to traffickers who had promised them better life in Malaysia.
“Now our dreams got shattered,” said Anwara Begum, a refugee at the Kutupalong camp who said she once owned a home in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. “But thank God, we are still alive.”
About 740,000 Rohingya from Rakhine state fled their homes beginning in August 2017 after Myanmar’s military launched a brutal offensive in response to deadly attacks by a rebel group on government security posts.
The Rohingya who crossed the border into southeastern Bangladesh joined thousands of other Rohingya who had previously fled Myanmar, bringing the number of refugees in camps in and around Cox’s Bazar district to more than 1 million.
Mohammad Rakibul Islam Khan, an official at the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission in Bangladesh, told BenarNews that Rohingya refugees were often willing to take risks with a perilous sea journey to secure a better future for their children.
“They are desperately trying to avail a better living and consider Malaysia to be the best place to move,” Khan told BenarNews.
Bangladeshi authorities said they had blocked more than 600 Rohingya refugees, including women and children, who attempted to sail to Malaysia last year.
“Human traffickers have become active in this period as the sea remains calm in the winter,” Mohammad Iqbal Hossain, additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews in November.
Myanmar classifies Rohingya Muslims as illegal migrants from the Indian subcontinent and denies them citizenship, despite claiming roots there that go back centuries.
In a joint statement, the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration said they were ready to offer assistance to the needs of the survivors and expressed sadness over “this tragic loss of life.”
Tun Khin, chairman of U.K.-based Burma Rohingya Organization, said Rohingya refugees had been trying to escape from their camps.
“As soon as Myanmar authorities return citizen rights to Rohingya, the problem of boat people could be stopped,” he told Radio Free Asia, an online news service affiliated with BenarNews. “So, we call Myanmar government to return citizen rights to all Rohingya.”
Athena Rayburn, Cox’s Bazar manager of the humanitarian agency Save the Children, said the incident should serve as a “wake up call” that Rohingya families were willing to risk their lives “to escape a life of misery and suffering” in refugee camps.
“Such tragic incidents are caused by desperation,” she said.