Channel NewsAsia

Two dead, nine missing as boat capsizes off Johor

Malaysian authorities are searching for nine people missing at sea after an overloaded fishing boat carrying illegal Indonesian migrants capsized off southern Malaysia.

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian authorities on Tuesday were searching for nine people missing at sea after an overloaded fishing boat carrying illegal Indonesian migrants capsized off southern Malaysia, killing at least two.

Aminuddin Abdul Rashid, an official with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, said the fibreglass boat overturned and sank on late Monday with around 70 people onboard as a patrol vessel was pursuing it off the state of Johor. He added that those aboard the boat wanted to sneak out of Malaysia to return to their homes in Indonesia to celebrate the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Authorities have stepped up patrols along the country's long coastline during Ramadan as many from Indonesia seek to sneak out and return in rickety boats to celebrate Eid al-Fitr in late July -- Islam's biggest festival, which marks the end of the fasting month.

Aminuddin said 59 passengers had been rescued in addition to the two boatmen who were also pulled from the water on Tuesday, clinging onto some wood. According to the boatmen, the vessel was carrying 70 people, he said, adding that a man and a woman had died.

Another agency official had earlier said the boat was believed to be carrying around 80 people with 18 missing.

Aminuddin said the boat, which was heading to Indonesia's Batam island, rammed into the agency's patrol vessel three times as it tried to escape away after it was spotted. The collision caused damage to the passenger vessel and it sank three nautical miles off Tanjung Piai, peninsular Malaysia's southern-most point, in strong currents.

Aminuddin said the two boatmen were being investigated for smuggling the migrants and could be sentenced to jail if they are found guilty

"It's not easy to educate them," he said, referring to the migrants who are believed to have paid 1,500 ringgit ($470) each for the dangerous journey back to avoid border controls.

Activists say the government needs to crack down on agents and employers profiting from illegal labour and corruption among border authorities. 

"Unless all this is addressed, this will happen again and again," Aegile Fernandez, an official with Malaysian migrant labour rights group Tenaganita, told AFP.

More than a dozen people died and about two dozen others went missing last month in two boat accidents in rough weather off Malaysia's west coast. The boats were also carrying Indonesians, who were attempting to sneak out of the country for Ramadan. Both Malaysia and Indonesia are Muslim-majority Southeast Asian countries.

About two million foreigners are estimated to live in Malaysia illegally, in addition to almost two million legal overseas workers.

Tweet photos, videos and updates on this story to  @channelnewsasia