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Malaysia Says 27 Still Missing After Indonesia-Bound Boats Sink

June 20 (Bloomberg) -- Malaysia said 27 people are still missing after two Indonesia-bound boats sank in the Straits of Malacca this week as survivors told authorities stormy weather caused the crafts to overturn.

Fifteen bodies have been recovered from the first sinking that occurred June 18, while 20 remain unaccounted for, Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency operations officer Mohd. Hambali Yaakup said by phone text message today. The Malaysian Meteorological Department warned of strong winds and rough seas in the northern Straits of Malacca, according to a statement on its website today.

“This condition of strong winds and rough seas is dangerous to small crafts,” the Meteorological Department said. The sinkings occurred off the coast of Selangor state, located around the center of the 600-mile (965-kilometer) strait.

Authorities are still investigating if those on board the boats are undocumented immigrants from Indonesia, Mohd. Hambali said. Malaysia has seen at least nine other cases of boats carrying illegal immigrants sinking since 2000, the New Straits Times reported yesterday.

The boats were carrying Indonesians returning home ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and the Eid festival that follows, the Star newspaper reported today. Such trips could cost between 640 ringgit ($199) to 1,600 ringgit per person, and syndicates that operate the boats stay away from safe routes to avoid detection, the paper said, without citing where it got the information.

Thousands of undocumented immigrants were arrested in Malaysia last year in a nationwide operation to track down and deport almost half a million illegal workers from countries including Indonesia and Bangladesh.

The first boat carried 97 people, while the second had 27, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said. Seven remain missing from the second craft, which sank near the coastal district of Sepang, Mohd. Hambali said.

Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy is clamping down on cheap illegal labor as it strives to move up the value chain from its agricultural base into more high-end manufacturing and services. About 1.3 million overstayers registered for permits during an amnesty in 2011.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shamim Adam in Kuala Lumpur at sadam2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Shamim Adam at sadam2@bloomberg.net Niluksi Koswanage

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