At least 17 people drowned when a boat carrying Rohingya refugees fleeing Rakhine State broke up at sea this week, rescuers said Thursday.
Thousands of Rohingya risk their lives each year making perilous sea journeys from camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar to try to reach Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia.
Byar La, a rescuer from the Shwe Yaung Metta Foundation in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, said more than 50 people were thought to be on the boat heading for Malaysia when it got into trouble in heavy seas on Sunday night.
“We found 17 dead bodies… as of yesterday,” he told AFP.
“We found eight men alive. Police have taken them for questioning.”
Rescuers are still trying to find those unaccounted for, he said, although the exact number on board is not known.
Rakhine in Buddhist-majority Myanmar is home to around 600,000 Rohingya Muslims, who are considered migrants from Bangladesh and are denied citizenship and freedom of movement.
Deadly sea crossings
More than 3,500 Rohingya in 39 vessels attempted crossings of the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal in 2022, up from 700 the previous year, according to the United Nations refugee agency’s January data.
At least 348 Rohingya died or went missing at sea last year, the agency said, calling for a regional response to stop further drownings.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says calls for maritime authorities in the region “to rescue and disembark people in distress have gone unheeded with many boats adrift for weeks”.
Amnesty International likens the living conditions of Rohingya people in Rakhine state to “apartheid”.
A Myanmar military crackdown in 2017 forced some 750,000 Rohingya to flee Rakhine for Bangladesh amid widespread accounts of murder, arson and rape.
Myanmar is facing genocide accusations at the UN top court following the mass exodus.
Bangladesh and Myanmar have discussed efforts to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees to their homeland.
A top United States rights envoy in Bangladesh said in July conditions remain unsafe for the return of ethnic Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.
Funding cuts forced the UN food agency to cut rations to Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh twice this year.
A cyclone ravaged Rakhine in May and the military junta has blocked international efforts to deliver aid.
Myanmar has been in chaos since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government was toppled in a military coup in February 2021, ending its brief period of democracy.