At least 15 people drowned Tuesday after an overcrowded boat carrying Rohingya Muslim refugees capsized and sank off the coast of Bangladesh .
Commander Sohel Rana of the coast guard station on St. Martin's Island, Bangladesh, said the wooden boat was setting sail for Malaysia when it hit a coral reef in shallow water. It was packed with refugees from camps around Cox's Bazar.
Fishermen alerted the coast guard, which found the vessel sinking with survivors swimming and crying for help. Navy divers joined the coast guard for the rescue operation. By nightfall, rescuers had saved 73 people and recovered 15 bodies. Among the dead were women and children.
Coast guard spokesman Hamidul Islam said the chance of finding survivors is slim, but " But added, "we are continuing the search and rescue operations."
Jamila Bibi from the Kutupalong Refugee Camp is one of the survivors. She said her husband was in Malaysia. "I was going to him. But I cannot go to my destination now," she said.
A Rohingya teenager who declined to reveal his name said, "I can't eat properly at camp. Can't move freely. I thought, 'If I go to Malaysia, maybe I can live a better life.' So I wanted to go to Malaysia by boat."
More than 730,000 Rohingya left Myanmar after a military-led campaign against them in 2017. They were forced to live in crowded, dirty camps across the border in Bangladesh. But several attempts to repatriate Rohingya Muslims back to Buddhist-majority Myanmar have been met with resistance.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR says Malaysia had nearly 100,000 Rohingya refugees by the end of 2019, the second largest number after Bangladesh.
Many of the refugees in Cox's Bazar have since tried to make the hazardous sea journey to Malaysia. Last November, Bangladesh's coast guard rescued 122 Rohingya refugees when a vessel they had boarded to Malaysia started sinking because of a mechanical problem.
Following news reports of the drownings, Save the Children said in a statement, "The Rohingya refugee crisis has claimed yet more innocent victims today." The humanitarian organization called the drownings "a wakeup call" and urged Myanmar to "ensure the Rohingya community can return to their homes in a safe and dignified manner."