At least 17 Rohingya refugees, including children, have been reported dead after their boat capsized in bad weather off the Myanmar coast.
The boat, with at least 90 people on board, was on its way to Malaysia across the Bay of Bengal when it sank, according to Radio Free Asia. Some of the bodies washed up on beaches in the western state of Rakhine, while more than 50 passengers remain missing, it said.
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While hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a mostly Muslim minority, fled Myanmar for Bangladesh after a brutal military crackdown nearly five years ago, some remain in Rakhine where they mostly live in squalid camps with severe restrictions on movement.
The boat had left Sittwe, the state capital, on May 19 but ran into bad weather a couple of days later.
The United Nations refugee agency said it was “shocked and saddened” by the reported deaths and was seeking more information from Myanmar.
“The latest tragedy shows once again the sense of desperation being felt by Rohingya in Myanmar and in the region,” Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR’s director for Asia and the Pacific said in a statement. “It is shocking to see increasing numbers of children, women and men embarking on these dangerous journeys and eventually losing their lives.”
A spokesman for Myanmar’s military regime said that the boat had capsized about five nautical miles west of Thapyay Hmaw Island near Shwe Thaung Yan in Rakhine’s south.
“A search was carried out and found 14 Bengalis dead. The rest will be deported as usual,” Major General Zaw Min Tun told RFA using a derogatory term for the Rohingya. He added that a number of suspected human traffickers had been arrested and that they had been trying to take the group to Malaysia.
Those who want to leave the camps in Rakhine usually pay traffickers between three and five million Myanmar kyat ($1,600-2,700) per person, RFA said.
In its annual report on the sea crossings, the UNHCR said that 2020 was the deadliest year ever for Rohingya crossing the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
Of the 2,413 people known to have travelled in 2020, 218 died or went missing at sea, the UN agency said in its report last August.