A WOODEN boat carrying Indonesians home in a storm sank in choppy seas off Malaysia’s west coast yesterday, leaving 32 people missing and five dead.
The boat capsized shortly after midnight about two nautical miles off Kuala Lumpur while trying to leave Malaysia illegally for Aceh province in Indonesia, a maritime agency official said. At least 60 people survived.
Tens of thousands of Indonesians work without legal permits in plantations and other industries in Malaysia, and they travel between the countries by crossing the narrow Strait of Malacca, often in poorly-equipped boats. The passengers were believed to be heading home before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Survivors were rescued at sea and found on land after swimming to safety. They included 12 women and a child. They are being questioned by police and immigration authorities, and Indonesian embassy officials were also on the scene.
A rescue department photo showed about two dozen survivors, who had few belongings with them, sitting outside a building after being brought ashore.
A ship, eight boats and a helicopter were searching for further survivors. Rescuers were seen recovering a body from the sea, laying the dead on a boat deck and carrying a body ashore in Pantai Kelanang, near where the boat sank.
Police Superintendent Azman Abdul Razak said 100 people were involved in the rescue effort.
Authorities are still investigating why the boat sank but rough seas and an overloaded boat could have been factors. Some survivors also claimed the boat was leaking, he said, and police told local media the boat capsized during a storm.
The boat’s capacity was 50-60 people, but it was believed to be carrying 97.
“It is likely that survivors could have swum ashore and gone into hiding since they have no legal documents here,” said Mohammed Hambali Yaakup, head of operations in the area for the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).
Mr Hambali said he could not confirm reports that a people-smuggling gang had been involved with the boat. All 60 survivors have been arrested under immigration laws, he added.
Malaysia, one of south-east Asia’s wealthier economies, has long been a magnet for illegal immigrants from Indonesia and other poorer countries in the region.
Many undocumented Indonesians work in Malaysia’s extensive oil palm plantations, a mainstay of its economy.
“This was an illegal boat and all the passengers were Indonesian,” Mohamad Zuri, another MMEA official later said.
Despite periodic crackdowns on illegal workers, Malaysia is home to an estimated two million undocumented immigrants or about 7 per cent of its 29 million population.
The question of migrant workers has long been a touchy issue in Indonesia.
Both candidates in a 9 July Indonesian presidential race have said that Indonesian workers overseas, who often performing manual labour, need better protection.