At least 60 people, among them women and children, are likely to have lost their lives following an incident in which a boat carrying Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar capsized in rough waters off Bangladesh.
Witnesses and survivors said the incident took place on Thursday, when the vessel overturned in waters close to Patuwartek, some eight kilometers off Inani Beach in Cox’s Bazar District, after it was lashed by torrential rain and high winds.
“Twenty three people have been confirmed dead… 40 are missing and presumed drowned,” the spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Joel Millman, told reporters in Geneva. “The total fatality toll be in the range of 60.”
There is speculations that the death toll may rise as more than 100 Rohingya were on board the boat.
“It’s a very sad story. There were a hundred Rohingya on board when it sank,” Hala Jaber, another IOM spokesperson told AFP, adding that search efforts were ongoing.
The tragedy came as the United Nations said the number of Rohingya Muslims who had fled to neighboring Bangladesh since new violence erupted in Myanmar’s Rakhine State on August 25 had surpassed half a million.
Denouncing Myanmar’s military campaign against the Muslim minority group as “ethnic cleansing,” the UN has called on the country to halt military operations and open humanitarian access to its conflict-wracked western region, where the Rohingya are under attack by soldiers and Buddhist mobs.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a speech to the UN Security Council on Thursday that, “The situation [in Bangladesh and Myanmar] has spiraled into the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency, a humanitarian and human rights nightmare.”
Myanmar’s volatile Rakhine State has been the scene of communal violence against the Rohingya since 2012. Many of the Muslims have lost their lives while tens of thousands have been displaced as a result of attacks by Buddhists.
There have been widespread reports and eyewitness accounts of killings, rapings, indiscriminate shootings at fleeing civilians, and the burning down of houses.
Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is under fire from the international community and rights groups for allowing the violence to happen and continue.
Her government denies full citizenship to the Rohingya, branding them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Dhaka, in turn, regards the desperate refugees as Myanmarese. The Rohingya, however, track their ancestors many generations back in Myanmar.