Nine human trafficking suspects have been arrested, Bangladesh police said Thursday, after 15 Rohingya refugees drowned when an overloaded boat sank as it tried to reach Malaysia.
Seventy-three people were rescued and dozens remain missing after the boat -- barely 13 metres (40 feet) long and carrying 138 Rohingya, mostly women and children -- sank off southern Bangladesh on Tuesday.
The men were arrested in raids on Wednesday and Thursday in the southeastern district of Cox's Bazar where nearly a million Rohingya live in squalid camps after many fled Myanmar amid a military crackdown in 2017.
Police said they had been searching for 19 suspects, 18 of whom are Bangladeshis, after the sinking. The nine are expected to be charged with abetting murder, a police spokesman told AFP.
"Nine human smugglers have already been arrested in the past two days," deputy police chief of Cox's Bazar, Ikbal Hossain, told AFP.
Police said trafficking attempts have increased since 2017, with 713 Rohingya rescued as they were taken by boat to other countries, mostly Malaysia, in the past two-and-a-half years.
"During this period seven human traffickers were shot dead in gunfights with police. At least 69 traffickers were arrested," Cox's Bazar police inspector Ali Arshad told AFP.
With few opportunities for jobs and education in the camps, thousands have tried to reach countries like Malaysia and Thailand by attempting the hazardous journey across the journey of Bay of Bengal.
Trafficking often increases during the November-March period when the sea is safest for the small trawlers used by traffickers.
An estimated 25,000 Rohingya left Bangladesh and Myanmar on boats in 2015 trying to get to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Hundreds drowned when overloaded boats sank.
Police data from 2015 stated that more than 300 human traffickers were active in or near the camps.
Dozens of suspected traffickers were killed by police following 2015 sinkings.