At least 12 Rohingya refugees, most of them children, drowned and scores more were missing Monday after their overloaded boat capsized in the latest tragedy to strike those fleeing violence in Myanmar.
Authorities in Bangladesh said the boat was carrying between 60 and 100 people when it overturned and sank late Sunday in rough seas.
More than half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state for Bangladesh since late August. Many walk for days through thick jungle before making the perilous boat journey across the Naf river that divides the two countries.
Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) official Abdul Jalil told AFP on Monday they had recovered the bodies of 10 children, an elderly woman and a man after an all-night rescue operation.
Survivor Sayed Hossain wept as he watched the body of his two and a half-year-old son being taken away to the local cemetery for burial.
“We set off at around 6pm. We did not have any choice but to leave our village,” he said, telling how the overloaded boat overturned when it hit a shoal and sank in rough water.
“They (security forces) have restricted our movements. Many are starving as we could not even go to shop or market to buy food,” said the 30-year-old Rohingya farmhand, who lived in a village east of Myanmar’s Buthidaung township.
Hossain’s mother, his pregnant wife and two children were all still missing.
Border guard boats have rescued 13 Rohingya and the rest are missing, Jalil said, adding many may have swum to the Rakhine coast.
Area coast guard commander Alauddin Nayan said the boat capsized near the coastal village of Galachar with nearly 100 people on board, more than half of them children.
– Dangerous journey –
Around 150 Rohingya, many of them children, have drowned trying to reach Bangladesh in small and rickety fishing boats that coastguards say are woefully inadequate for the rough seas.
Late last month more than 60 refugees are feared to have died when the boat carrying them from Myanmar capsized in rough weather in the Bay of Bengal.
Villagers at Shah Porir Dwip where the boats mostly land told AFP the Rohingya were increasingly travelling at night to avoid strict border patrols in Bangladesh, making the journey even more dangerous.
Last week the guards destroyed at least 30 wooden fishing vessels amid increased concern they were being used to bring the popular methamphetamine drug known locally as Yaba into the country and using the refugee crisis as cover.
Gangs of boat owners, crew and fishermen have also been charging the fleeing Rohingya upwards of $250 for the two-hour journey that normally costs no more than $5.
Nearly 520,000 Rohingya Muslims have now entered Bangladesh since deadly Rohingya militant raids on Myanmar police posts on August 25 prompted a brutal military backlash.
The United Nations has said the army campaign could amount to “ethnic cleansing” while Myanmar military leaders have blamed the unrest on the Rohingya.
The government of Buddhist-majority Myanmar refuses to recognise the Rohingya as a distinct ethnic group and considers them illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
While the worst of the violence appears to have abated, insecurity, food shortages and tensions with Buddhist neighbours are still driving thousands of Rohingya to make the arduous journey to Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshi authorities initially refused them entry but relented as the numbers became overwhelming, and have set aside land for a giant refugee camp near the border.