Kuala Lumpur: At least 40 illegal immigrants from Indonesia, including women and children, went missing when a boat carrying them home to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr sank off Malaysia`s coast.
The boat, carrying 44 immigrants, sank after being hit by strong waves around midnight on Thursday, about 13.55 nautical miles off Tanjung Siang in Kota Tinggi of Johor state, located in the south of Peninsular Malaysia.
The incident came to light last evening when a group of fishermen rescued three of the survivors clinging to a plastic drum. A fourth survivor was rescued by a Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) patrol boat.
None of the survivors, aged between 26 and 31, were wearing life jackets.
A MMEA official said two ships, four speedboats and two helicopters have been dispatched to step up rescue efforts, but none of the missing, including women and children, could be spotted.
Kota Tinggi police chief Superintendent Mohammad Nor Rasid said search and rescue operations by the Marine Operations Force and MMEA are still ongoing.
The Indonesian consulate in Johor has offered help to illegal immigrants who want to return, saying they could be issued temporary travel documents and even get funds. It urged them not to risk a boat ride, Bernama news agency reported.
A 26-year-old survivor said their boat was hit by big waves an hour out to sea. "We panicked and gathered on one side of the boats which caused it to tilt and capsize."
The boat sank nearly three hours into its journey from Tanjung Sedili on the state`s east coast to Indonesia`s Batam island.
While authorities are investigating what caused the boat to sink, the boat`s condition was said to be questionable based on the survivors` accounts.
Shipping accidents off Malaysia`s coast are common as thousands of people from poorer neighbours, such as Indonesia and Myanmar, risk journeys in flimsy boats to work illegally in the relatively affluent country.
It was the second recent maritime accident involving Indonesians in Johor state`s waters. At least one woman drowned and 27 were rescued when a boat sank on July 18.