Rescue teams have found at least 17 bodies on Myanmar’s shores after a Rohingya boat capsized while on its way to Malaysia on Monday, officials told CNN.
Among the dead were 10 women and seven men – all of whom were Rohingya Muslims, said Bya Latt, a spokesperson for the Shwe Yaung Matta Foundation rescue group.
The tragedy occured near Rakhine state’s capital city Sittwe.
Eight survivors were found alive and are currently being held at a local police station, Latt added.
A Sittwe police official told CNN that the boat was transporting 58 people, including three boat drivers.
“They were met with a storm in the sea and the boat sank under huge waves,” the official said, asking not to be identified.
Joint rescue operations by local police and the rescue foundation are ongoing with 33 still missing.
The victims were from various townships including Rathedaung, Maungdaw and Buthidaung, the police official said.
Risking lives at sea
The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar and rights watchers say they are among the most persecuted people in the world.
They have suffered decades of violence, discrimination and persecution and are denied citizenship despite living in the country for generations.
A historic mass exodus began in August 2017 after waves of violence broke out in Rakhine state which forced more than 700,000 people to seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. Entire villages were burned to the ground, thousands of families killed or separated.
Desperate to flee overcrowded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, groups take risky journeys out to sea in search for safety and asylum in neighboring countries.
The perilous voyage from Cox’s Bazaar to Malaysia can take weeks, and conditions at sea are challenging, experts have noted.
While all countries are bound by international law to rescue people in distress at sea, watch groups say that swift action is not always forthcoming particularly where Rohingya refugees are concerned – many are turned away while women have reported assaults during the journey.