Some two dozen Rohingya refugees were missing and feared to have drowned after their boat capsized in bad weather as they tried to flee from their confinement on a remote Bangladeshi island, local authorities and U.N. officials said Sunday.
Coast-guard and navy teams were searching Bay of Bengal waters for at least 26 Rohingya who were still missing as of early Sunday evening, Bangladeshi officials said.
Local fishermen rescued at least 12 other people from the boat a day earlier, including a man who said he survived by clinging to the vessel’s side after a wind gust caused it to capsize.
His wife and children were all missing after the boat capsized as they attempted to escape with other Rohingya to the Bangladeshi mainland from Bhashan Char Island, the survivor told BenarNews, , an RFA-affiliated online news service, on Sunday. The tiny island’s resident refugee population of about 19,000 is prohibited from leaving its confines.
“The incident happened between 11 p.m. Friday and 2 a.m. Saturday. The boat sank due to inclement weather. The local fishermen rescued, and left them at Bhashan Char,” Rear Adm. M. Ashraful Haq, director-general of the Bangladesh Coast Guard, told BenarNews on Sunday afternoon.
It was not immediately clear how many crew members were on the boat, which was operated by smugglers, according to the survivor who spoke to BenarNews.
The Rohingya people boarded the boat, which left the island via a canal located in a jungle where police vigilance is not as strong, Haq said.
“One of the rescued persons, Sanaullah, informed us that there were 38 people on board. And the local fishermen rescued 12 people; 26 people have been missing,” Haq said.
The boat capsized approximately 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) southeast of Bhashan Char, he said.
“Usually, wind speed in [that area] remains high during August. They chose the route to avoid Coast Guard vigil,” the rear admiral said.
Two coast-guard patrol boats and a Navy patrol boat and helicopters were searching for the missing people, he said.
“But so far, we have not found a single person either live or dead,” Haq said.
According to Imran Hosen, chief administrator of Hatya, a sub-district of the Noakhali district that surrounds Bhashan Char, “the rescued people informed us that they were planning to go to the Kutupalong camp in Cox’s Bazar.”
He was referring to the largest of refugee camps in southeastern mainland Bangladesh, where about 1 million Rohingya refugees from nearby Myanmar are sheltering.
According to Bashir Ahmmad, the survivor from the boat interviewed by BenarNews, he and 10 family members boarded the boat after trekking for six hours through the jungle on Bhashan Char. Middlemen had charged each adult passenger 7,000 taka (U.S. $83) for the sea passage to the port-city of Chittagong on the mainland, he said.
“One and half hours after sailing, a strong wind overturned the boat. I caught a side of the trawler to keep me afloat,” Ahmmad, 22, told BenarNews by telephone.
“Some fishermen fishing nearby rescued us. Six of us are alive; others are missing,” he said.
Among his missing family members were his wife, their four children and his sister-in-law.
He said that his family dared to try to escape from Bhashan Char because they were fed up with eating the same food – a regular diet of rice and pulses, as well as potatoes and fried fish.
Since December 2020, Bangladesh has moved thousands of Rohingya refugees from the mainland camps to the low-lying island, where the government built a housing complex and infrastructure to accommodate as many as 100,000 refugees.
Human rights groups have criticized the government for relocating refugees the island, saying that they would be cut off from the rest of Bangladesh and exposed to potential cyclones. But the government has said that the refugees moved there voluntarily as part of Bangladesh’s efforts to ease congestion in the Cox’s Bazar camps.
When senior officials from the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR visited the island in late May, a violent protest broke out among hundreds of refugees who were complaining about living conditions there and being unable to earn any money through jobs, among other grievances.
Since Bangladesh began relocating refugees to the island, reports have emerged of some Rohingya trying to escape to the mainland.
On Friday, police caught eight Rohingya in Subarnachar, another upazila or sub-district of Noakhali, after they fled from the island, local authorities said.
Meanwhile in a statement posted on Facebook on Sunday, UNHCR said it had been notified on Saturday morning that “a boat carrying dozens of Rohingya refugees had capsized close to Bhashan Char island overnight.”
“We are devastated that reportedly many passengers, including women and children, have tragically drowned,” the United Nations agency said.
“We are grateful to local Bangladeshi fishermen who were first on the scene and alerted Bangladeshi authorities.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.