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At least 17 dead after Rohingya boat breaks up off Myanmar

AFP – At least 17 people drowned when a boat carrying Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar’s Rakhine state broke up at sea this week, rescuers said yesterday.

Thousands of Rohingya risk their lives each year making perilous sea journeys from camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar to try to reach Malaysia and Indonesia.

Byar La, a rescuer from the Shwe Yaung Metta Foundation in the town of Sittwe, said more than 50 people were thought to be on the boat heading for Malaysia when it got into trouble in heavy seas last Sunday.

“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.

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 UN 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 UN 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”.

A Myanmar military crackdown in 2017 forced some 750,000 Rohingya to flee Rakhine for Bangladesh following widespread accounts of murder, arson and rape. Myanmar is facing genocide accusations at the UN’s top court following the mass exodus.

Bangladesh and Myanmar have discussed efforts to begin repatriating Rohingya refugees to their homeland.

A top US 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.