Authorities in Bangladesh have rescued 69 people, but passengers said there were an estimated 130 on board, raising the prospect that the death toll could rise.
Since 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have lived in crowded and squalid camps in Bangladesh after fleeing alleged atrocities in Myanmar, including massacres, torture and rape. Last year, a lawsuit was filed at the United Nations’ top court accusing Myanmar of genocide, charges the government denies.
Rohingya Muslims are a religious minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar who have faced decades of officially sanctioned discrimination.
Attempts to repatriate groups of Rohingya from the camps in Bangladesh back to Myanmar, also known as Burma, have failed, with refugees refusing to return out of fear for their safety.
Bangladesh, meanwhile, appears to be growing weary of the visitors. The refugee camps have become hubs for drug trafficking and other illegal activities, authorities in Bangladesh say. In recent months, officials have shut down Internet and cellphone service in the camps, citing threats to law and order.
Bangladesh is also planning to relocate 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a new camp on an island in the Bay of Bengal despite warnings that the site is prone to catastrophic damage from cyclones.
Unable to return home and facing the prospect of years of stagnation in the refugee camps, some Rohingya are fleeing again. Smugglers offering an illegal journey to Malaysia — a Muslim-majority nation more than 1,000 miles away by sea — are active in the camps in Bangladesh.
Many young Rohingya feel they “face a bleak future” and are willing to take the risks involved in the trip to Malaysia, said Noor Ali, a community leader in the Jamtoli refugee camp in Bangladesh.
During the winter, when the seas are calmer, refugees attempt the perilous crossing in the hopes of a better life. Several thousand Rohingya refugees, mostly men, have managed to reach Malaysia in recent years.
The boat that sank Tuesday was full of Rohingya attempting that journey, Abedin said. The craft may have run aground on a coral reef when it approached St. Martin’s Island, he said. A second boat also left at the same time as the one that sank but authorities said they have found no trace of it.
Video from the scene of the rescue showed women huddled on one side of a pier in St. Martin’s Island while bodies draped in sheets were placed nearby.
Noor Ayesha, a woman in her mid-30s who lives in the Balukhali refugee camp with her two children, said she considered herself lucky not to be on the boat that sank. Her husband reached Malaysia a few years ago and wants her to join him there.
Ayesha said she was in touch with a network of smugglers but backed out at the last minute, afraid the trip was too dangerous.
Azad Majumder in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Shaikh Azizur Rahman in Kolkata, India, contributed to this report.