Up to 130 people trying to escape ethnic violence in Burma are said to be missing after their boat sank off the coast of Bangladesh. Police and community groups said the boat containing families of Rohingya Muslims, sank while trying to make its way towards Malaysia.
“We have heard from our sources on the ground that there were 130 people on the boat,” said Tun Kin, president of the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK (Brouk). “We still don’t know where it happened.”
At least 90 people have lost their lives and tens of thousands forced from their homes in recent days after violence erupted again in western Burma, targetting a Muslim community that faces widespread persecution and abuse in the region. The Burmese authorities claim they should leave the country and have been accused of standing back and doing nothing as village and townships have been attacked and set on fire by members of the Buddhist community.
Many of the Rohingya have tried to escape to Bangladesh, where up to 800,000 live in miserable conditions in refugee camps. But in recent days – despite pleas from human rights organisations and the United Nations – the Bangladeshi authorities have tightened their grip on the border and pushed back at least 150 people trying to enter the country.
Mohammad Farhad, police inspector at Teknaf on the south-eastern tip of Bangladesh, told the Agence France-Presse that an apparent survivor from the vessel that sank said there had been up to 135 people onboard at the time.
“The boat was heading to Malaysia illegally,” said the policeman, adding that the 24-year-old survivor was being held in custody. “He does not know what happened to the others as it was dark and he was desperate to save his own life.”
Mr Farhad said a total of six survivors were reported to have been picked up by a fishing vessel after the refugee boat left Sabrang village in Bangladesh on Saturday. “We have spoken to families of missing passengers,” he said.
Yet there were conflicting reports about whether all those on the boat were Rohingya and also over the time of the sinking. While the Bangladeshi authorities said it happened early on Sunday, Mr Kin and other organisation said they had been told it happened on Monday.