TEKNAF, Bangladesh—Nearby fishing boats helped rescue 23 people after a vessel crowded with illegal migrants capsized on Wednesday off Bangladesh’s coast, but about 50 others remained missing, officials said.
Around 70 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims, were reportedly traveling on the boat to Malaysia when it sank in the Bay of Bengal.
Border commander Lt-Col Zahid Hossain said no bodies had been recovered so far, but quoted survivors as saying they saw some bodies after the boat sank off Bangladesh’s Teknaf coast, 320 km (200 miles) south of Dhaka.
Survivors said they were traveling to Malaysia to look for jobs, said coast guard official Lt Badruddoza, adding that other fishing boats rescued many of the survivors.
In recent years, poor young people have made dangerous attempts to go abroad for work, often through unscrupulous human traffickers, with local reports saying stateless Rohingya people living in Bangladesh often attempt the risky trips.
Another boat carrying more than 100 people sank in the Bay of Bengal last month, local media reported. Authorities have not confirmed that sinking, but police launched an investigation after several people filed complaints saying they survived the accident on the trip, organized by a gang of human traffickers.
More than 25,000 Rohingya people live in two official camps run jointly by the government and the United Nations in Cox’s Bazar. But hundreds of thousands of others live outside the camps after crossing the border from Burma in recent years for economic reasons or due to alleged persecution.
Recent sectarian violence in western Burma has left thousands of Rohingya homeless and thought to have exacerbated the illegal migration problem.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that the number of refugees fleeing the region by boat had already reached a record high before communal strife erupted in Arakan (Rakhine) State in June. An estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people undertook the perilous voyage from the Bay of Bengal between October 2011 and March 2012.
There were at least four reported incidents of boats that ran into technical problems, leaving more than 20 people confirmed dead and over 100 still missing from November 2011 to January this year. There are fears that more irregular boat movements could take place in the Bay of Bengal as the traditional “sailing season” of economic migrants begins in November.
Rohingya people perennially leave their homes and families in Burma and Bangladesh where they face extreme discrimination and are denied citizenship. The Muslim minority often find they have little alternative but to try to travel illegally across the Andaman Sea to try to find work in Thailand, Malaysia or another third country.
They are frequently described by human rights groups as “one of the most persecuted people in the world.”
The Rohingya issue previously drew international attention in 2009 when the Thai military was accused of intercepting boatloads of Rohingyas, sabotaging their vessels, and abandoning them at sea.