Drownings Draw Attention to Immigrants’ Efforts to Sneak into Malaysia

Noah Lee and Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur
Drownings Draw Attention to Immigrants’ Efforts to Sneak into Malaysia Rescuers bring bodies believed to Indonesians who drowned in the waters off Johor state while trying to enter Malaysia illegally by sea, Dec. 17, 2021.
Courtesy of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency

Human traffickers have tried to smuggle in undocumented migrant workers by sea almost every day since May 2020, Malaysia’s coast guard chief said Friday, after nearly two dozen Indonesians died when their boat sank off Johor state earlier this week.

As of Friday, the death toll had reached 21, while 13 had been rescued and 16 were missing from the boat that sank in the waters of Tanjung Balau, the Malaysian coast guard and Indonesian officials reported.

“Such an unfortunate tragedy can be avoided if illegal immigrants and human trafficking syndicates do not conspire to smuggle people into the country through illegal routes by risking their lives during bad weather,” said Mohd Zubil Mat Som, director-general of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency.

In this latest incident at sea, the waves were as high as three to five meters and winds blew up to 50 kph, he said in a statement.

Mohd Zubil said the MMEA’s Malaysian Marine Surveillance System “had successfully detected 1,110 suspicious targets since May 2020, with 689 of them successfully expelled from Malaysian waters.”

While border enforcement is strict, illegal immigrants are willing to risk their lives to enter the country illicitly, Mohd Zubil said.

“Smuggling syndicates do not care, in fact they are always looking for space to make a profit without thinking about the risk of life,” he said.

Tugs and other small boats often used by smugglers are not properly equipped to sail in rough waters, Mohd Zubil said.

“The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency hopes that this heartbreaking tragedy can be a lesson and open the eyes of illegal immigrants and smuggling syndicates so that they do not risk their lives by entering through illegal means,” he said.

Two ships and three boats belonging to the MMEA, the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Marine Police Force had been deployed for search-and-rescue operations in an area of 79 square nautical miles, said Capt. Simon Templer Lo Ak Tusa, the MMEA’s deputy director for operations in Johor state.

The authorities were also using helicopters from the Fire and Rescue Department and the Police Air Operations Force to conduct searches from the air covering an area of 135.8 square nautical miles.

The Indonesian Consulate General in Johor said efforts were under way to identify the victims.

In a media statement issued late Friday, the Consulate General noted that the death toll had risen after a body was found floating in the sea and another victim died while receiving treatment at the hospital.

“As of Dec. 17, the number of victims was 21, namely 15 men and six women while the number of survivors was 13,” according to a statement issued late Friday. 

A Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency officer searches for victims of a boat that sank in the waters of Tanjung Balau, Johor, Dec. 17, 2021. [Courtesy of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency]

Three of the victims have been identified and their remains are to be sent back to Indonesia.

“For the 13 Indonesian survivors, they are in good condition and are currently in custody at the Malaysian Immigration Department in Johor,” the statement said.

“Based on the verification process, nine of them are from Lombok while the rest are from Pekanbaru, Jember and Tanjung Balai Karimun.”

The consulate said officials would ensure the health and rights of citizens in detention were maintained, and it urged all Indonesians to not enter or leave neighboring Malaysia illegally.

In August, the Malaysian government reported that it had repatriated nearly 90,000 undocumented migrants, beginning in November 2020, under amnesty programs to send them to their home countries.

At that time, the Indonesian embassy estimated that about 2.7 million of its citizens were working in Malaysia but only 704,000 have the necessary documentation.


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