A file photo of Rohingya refugees protesting against a disputed repatriation program at the Unchiprang refugee camp near Teknaf, Bangladesh. Photo: AFP/ Dibyangshu Sarkar

At least 15 Rohingya refugees drowned and dozens more were unaccounted for after their overcrowded wooden boat heading for Malaysia sank on Tuesday off the coast of Saint Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal.

Malaysia is the favored destination of the Rohingya as it is a Muslim majority nation and has a sizeable Rohingya diaspora.

The Bangladesh Navy stated that of the 15 deceased, 12 were women and three were children. A total of 72 from the ill-fated boat were rescued and 51 remain missing at 5pm on Tuesday. Of those rescued, 24 were men and 46 women.

Lieutenant Nayeem Ul Haque, station commander of the coast guard on St Martin Island, told Asia Times the rescue operation was in full swing.

“We have deployed two helicopters, four speedboats and a few other local boats to find the missing 51 persons,” he said. “We have handed over the rescued persons to the Technaf coast guard station and from there they will be handed over to Technaf police station,” he said.

The victims, mostly women, were residents of different Rohingya camps in Teknaf and Ukhia Upazila at Cox’s Bazar, said Lieutenant Haque. He added that according to his information, a total of 138 people, mainly women and children, were packed on a wooden fishing trawler that was trying to get across the Bay of Bengal to Malaysia.

The trawler capsized at about 7am on Tuesday after hitting rocks, Lieutenant Naim said, adding that they received the information from local fishermen. “As soon as we received the information, we joined the rescue operation,” Haque said.

In hope for a better land

Large numbers of the nearly one million Rohingya who sought shelter in overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district have tried to get to Malaysia by boat. Kamal Hossain, one of those rescued, told Asia Times that they were lured by middlemen who painted a rosy picture of life in Malaysia.

“I live in Kutupalong camp. I was told that a trawler bound for Malaysia will leave from Noakhalipara in a few days. I, along with 100 others, surreptitiously left the camp and went to Noakhliapara. There we were kept in small hut for five days,” he said. “Late on Monday night, we were told that the boat was ready for us to board,” he said.

The boat, barely 13 meters, or 40 feet, long, was attempting the hazardous 2,000-kilometer journey before the monsoon season starts. “We got on board at about 1am. The boat ran for more than seven hours. At about 7am, we faced inclement weather. At one point the boat hit rocks and water started pouring in from the lower portion,” he said, adding that he could not remember what happened after that.

With few opportunities for jobs or an education in the camps, thousands have attempted to reach other countries in Southeast Asia. Since last year, Bangladesh’s law enforcement agencies have picked up more than 500 Rohingya from coastal villages as they waited to board boats.

At least seven suspected traffickers were shot dead in 2019 in clashes with police. Trafficking often increases during the November-March period when the sea is safest for the small fishing trawlers used in the risky trips.

An estimated 25,000 Rohingya left Bangladesh and Myanmar on boats in 2015 trying to get to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Hundreds drowned as overloaded boats sank.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said they “are closely liaising with Government of Bangladesh’s first responders to the tragic boat capsizing off the coast of St Martins Island in the Bay of Bengal. UNHCR and IOM are saddened by this tragic loss of life and, together with our other UN and NGO partners, are standing by to offer assistance to the government in responding to the needs of the survivors, be it food, shelter or medical aid.”

The statement said irregular boat movements are not new to the Cox’s Bazar district, as both Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis risk the unsafe journey to travel abroad due to compelling circumstances.

“Recognizing the dangers they face at sea, the UN has been working with government authorities to raise awareness among refugees and local people on the risks they may face,” the statement said.

“The UN is also supporting the strengthening of law enforcement capacities to address smuggling and trafficking and to protect those most at risk. Support is also available in the district to trafficking survivors.”

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