DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) – More than two dozen Rohingya refugees are missing and feared drowning after a boat carrying them capsized in the Bay of Bengal, the United Nations and Bangladeshi police said on Sunday.
The refugees were apparently trying to flee a remote island in Bangladesh. Several thousand Rohingya have been relocated to the island after previously residing in overcrowded camps near the Myanmar border.
The relocation has been criticized by the UN and human rights groups, who say the island is uninhabitable. The island was once regularly submerged by monsoon rains, but the government now says it is equipped with protective dikes, hospitals, schools and mosques.
“On the morning of August 14, UNHCR was alerted that a boat carrying dozens of Rohingya refugees had capsized near Bhasan Char Island overnight,” the UN refugee agency said in an article on Facebook.
“We are devastated that many passengers, including women and children, have tragically drowned. The confirmed number is not yet known, ”he said.
A police official from the Noakhali district, where the island is located, told The Associated Press by phone that around 40 refugees, including women and children, were in a fishing boat, but that it sank in bad weather.
Speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, the official said the refugees were “apparently fleeing the island”.
The official said at least 14 refugees were rescued by fishermen and brought back to the island.
The UN said local Bangladeshi fishermen arrived at the scene first and alerted authorities.
“The search and rescue operation is led by the authorities, including the Bangladeshi Navy and the Coast Guard,” he said.
“We are currently seeking further information from the government of Bangladesh and are keeping in touch with the refugee communities in Bhasan Char and Cox’s Bazar to support the authorities in their rescue efforts,” the agency said.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which has sheltered more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar, has relocated around 20,000 refugees to the island from sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar district.
The island in Noakhali district was developed by the Bangladeshi navy to accommodate some 100,000 refugees. Authorities said earlier they would gradually move them to the island.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist army began a harsh crackdown on the Muslim ethnic group following an insurgent attack. They joined hundreds of thousands of others who fled to Bangladesh over the decades.
The 2017 crackdown included rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of homes, and has been labeled ethnic cleansing by global rights groups and the UN. As Bangladesh and Myanmar have sought to organize repatriations, the Rohingya are too afraid to return home.