Dozens of people were missing Wednesday after a boat with Bangladeshis and Muslim Rohingyas fleeing violence in Burma sank off the Bangladesh coast, officials said, marking the second such incident in less than two weeks.
Both the boats had been heading to Malaysia when the mishaps occurred.
In the incident Wednesday, the overloaded wooden motor boat was carrying around 110 passengers when it foundered some 15 kilometers (9 miles) off Teknaf, Bangladesh’s southernmost town on the Bay of Bengal, foreign news agencies quoted security officials as saying.
Lieutenant-Colonel Mohammad Jahid of the Bangladesh border guards force told Reuters news agency that 51 people have been rescued so far by coast guard, fishing boats, and the border force's sea patrol.
A search and rescue operation is under way,” Agence France-Presse cited Border Guard commander Lieutenant Colonel Zahid Hasan as saying.
“The boat was heading to Malaysia illegally,” he said.
Several of those rescued were Muslim Rohingya, who have been fleeing in droves across the border to Bangladesh from western Burma’s Rakhine state following violence between the Rohingya and ethnic Buddhist Rakhines in the region since June which have left a total of 180 dead and displaced 110,000 others, according to official figures.
The sinking follows a similar tragedy on Oct. 28 in which a boat carrying around 135 mostly Rohingya passengers went down in the Bay of Bengal. Only around six survived the disaster.
Hasan said that those who survived Wednesday’s sinking had been picked up by fishing boats or were found floating by rescue teams. He said the boat had a capacity of only 70 passengers.
A survivor told AFP that seven or eight women were on board and that at least one of them had planned to find work in Malaysia. He said that the boat had capsized after a passenger fell into the sea and the captain turned abruptly to retrieve him.
Coastguards said rescue efforts had been hampered by bad weather and heavy rain, adding that they had not been able to find any bodies.
A local official said the group had attempted an “illegal bid” to reach Malaysia and that a middleman had taken money from them, promising to get them there.
Burma's 800,000 stateless Rohingyas, whom the United Nations considers among the world's most persecuted minorities, are seen by the government and by many Burmese as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Rights groups say the Rohingyas bore the brunt of the June and latest violence in Rakhine state between Buddhists and Muslims, which left hundreds dead, thousands of homes destroyed in fires, and tens of thousands of people displaced.
According to the United Nations, nearly all of the homeless and those who fled the violence and are living in refugee camps are Muslims, mostly the Rohingya.
The camps are being stretched beyond capacity in terms of space, shelter, and basic supplies such as food and water amid a lack of doctors to treat the sick and wounded, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
The UNHCR has appealed to neighboring countries to keep their borders open for those people seeking safety from the unrest in Rakhine state amid reports of another exodus of Rohingyas.
Thousands of Rohingyas have fled Burma in perilous sea journeys to escape persecution, often heading to nearby Bangladesh, Malaysia, and other neighboring nations.
Since the unrest erupted, boatloads of fleeing Rohingya have been turned away from Bangladesh, which says it is already burdened with an estimated 300,000 of the minority group.
On Wednesday, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and lawmakers from ethnic minority parties called on the government to deploy more troops to restore peace and stability to Rakhine state, according to a report by the Associated Press.
In a statement, the Members of Parliament urged the government to explain its policies on handling the ethnic conflict, adding that concerns of both the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims should be addressed.
The statement also called on the government to explain how it intends to apply a 1982 law that deals with the rules for citizenship for those who consider themselves Rohingya.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.