The boat, which maritime officials estimated had about 70 people aboard, had left Sabak Bernam in Malaysia’s western state of Selangor for Sumatra in neighboring Indonesia when the accident happened.
Initial conversations with survivors led officials to believe the passengers were Indonesian, said Muhammad Aliyas Hamdan, an official of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).
“If they are legal, they would not leave (the country) that way,” Muhammad said, when asked if the people were illegal migrants. The boat sank due to overloading and bad weather, he added.
Thousands of migrants from Indonesia work at construction sites, on palm plantations, in factories and domestic service across Malaysia, some without legal employment documents.
The number of survivors stood at 19, the agency’s director of search and rescue operations, Captain Robert Teh Geok Chuan, told Reuters, including 15 rescued by fishermen earlier, though the death toll could rise.
“We fear the casualty numbers will rise as it’s been several hours since the boat sank,” he added.
Search operations would continue through the night, Teh said, with ships, boats and a helicopter deployed in the hunt for survivors. Indonesia’s search and rescue agency said it was on standby to assist its Malaysian counterpart.
Southeast Asia faced a huge migrant crisis after Thailand cracked down on people-smuggling gangs in May, with more than 4,000 people landing in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand. Hundreds are believed to have drowned.
A fresh surge of refugees and migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh is expected to set out in boats for southeast Asia when the monsoon season ends in about a month, the United Nations has said.
Thursday’s accident happened as Europe faces its biggest refugee crisis since World War Two, and has yet to find a common response. Thousands of people from the Middle East, Asia and Africa have died making the journey across the Mediterranean and on land in Europe.