The boat that sank off Malaysia with 97 Indonesian illegal migrants was likely carrying three times more passengers than it could safely transport, authorities said on Thursday as they expanded a search for 26 still missing.
Nine bodies have been found after the vessel, overloaded with people heading home to Indonesia for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, sank early on Wednesday not far from shore off western Malaysia.
Sixty-two people have been rescued and officials believe some of the 26 still missing made it to land and fled the area to avoid being apprehended by police.
Authorities said the boat was believed to measure no more than nine metres long and two metres wide.
“The boat is too small to ferry 97 people. The boat must have been very cramped,” said Mohamad Zuhri, spokesman for the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).
Mohamad said the capacity of a boat of such dimensions was about 30 passengers.
On Wednesday, divers were deployed, more vessels brought in and the search zone expanded along the coast in hope of finding more survivors, said Mohamad Hambali Yaakup, coordinator of the response for the MMEA.
“We have deployed divers and a total of 25 marine craft and a helicopter to sweep the coastal area for possible survivors,” he said.
The incident occurred at night near Port Klang, the country’s main seaport.
Indonesian Ambassador Herman Prayitno told local media late on Wednesday that the immigrants had paid up to RM1,200 (HK$2,880) each for the trip back to Indonesia ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He said the boat was overloaded.
“It is a sad tragedy,” he said. “Many of them were in the country illegally as their tourist visas had expired and they had overstayed. They were finding work here but were on their way back to Indonesia for Ramadan.”
Hambali said the divers would try to determine what caused the boat to sink and to view any markings that would help identify the boat’s owner and operator.
He added that survivors were rescued at sea and found on land after swimming to safety. They included 49 men, 12 women and a child. A woman and eight men were among the dead, he added.
The survivors were 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 little belongings with them, sitting outside a building.
Rescuers were seen recovering a body from the sea, laying the dead onto a boat desk and carrying a body on land in Pantai Kelanang, near the sinking.
Hambali said authorities were still investigating why the boat sank, but rough seas and overcrowding could have been factors. It could also have hit by an object as some survivors claimed the boat was leaking, he said.
He said chances of survival for more than 24 hours without a life vest were very slim.
The boat’s capacity was 50-60 people, but it was believed to be carrying 97. Hambali said some survivors may have swum to shore and gone into hiding.
Large numbers of Indonesians annually return home from Malaysia for Ramadan, which this year begins around the end of June and will culminate in late July with Eid al-Fitr, Islam’s biggest festival.
Both Malaysia and Indonesia are Muslim-majority.
Relatively affluent Malaysia is a magnet for migrant workers from poorer neighbours such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Myanmar seeking low-paying plantation, construction, and factory work that is typically shunned by Malaysians.
Around two million illegal immigrants - the vast majority of them Indonesian - are estimated to be working in the country.
Accidents, however, are frequent as thousands annually risk the sea journey to and from Malaysia in rickety boats, often adding to the danger by travelling at night to avoid detection.
Associated Press, Agence France-Presse