The refugees were apparently trying to flee a remote Bangladeshi island. Several thousand Rohingya have been relocated to the island after previously residing in crowded camps near the border with Myanmar.
The relocation has been criticized by the U.N. and human rights groups, who say the island isn’t fit for habitation. The island used to be regularly submerged by monsoon rains, but the government now says it’s been outfitted with protective sea walls, hospitals, schools and mosques.
“On the morning of 14 August, UNHCR was alerted that a boat carrying dozens of Rohingya refugees had capsized close to Bhasan Char island overnight,” the U.N.’s refugee agency said in a Facebook post.
“We are devastated that reportedly many passengers, including women and children, have tragically drowned. The confirmed number is not yet known,” it said.
A police official in Noakhali district, where the island is located, told The Associated Press by phone that about 40 refugees including women and children were in a fishing boat, but it sank in bad weather.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, the official said the refugees were “apparently fleeing the island.”
The official said at least 14 refugees were rescued by fishermen and brought back to the island.
The U.N. said local Bangladeshi fishermen arrived on the scene first and alerted authorities.
“The search and rescue operation is being led by the authorities, notably the Bangladesh Navy and the Coast Guard,” it said.
“We are seeking further information from the Government of Bangladesh at this time and remain in contact with refugee communities both on Bhasan Char and in Cox’s Bazar in an attempt to support the authorities in further rescue efforts,” the agency said.
The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which has sheltered more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar, has relocated about 20,000 refugees to the island from sprawling camps in Cox’s Bazar district.
The island in Noakhali district was developed by Bangladesh’s navy to accommodate some 100,000 refugees. Authorities earlier said they would relocate them to the island in phases.
More than 700,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh since August 2017, when the military in Buddhist-majority Myanmar began a harsh crackdown on the Muslim ethnic group following an attack by insurgents. They joined hundreds of thousands of others who have fled to Bangladesh over decades.
The 2017 crackdown included rapes, killings and the torching of thousands of homes, and was termed ethnic cleansing by global rights groups and the U.N. While Bangladesh and Myanmar have sought to arrange repatriations, the Rohingya are too fearful to return home.