Kuala Lumpur:  An overloaded wooden boat carrying 97 suspected illegal Indonesian immigrants sank off western Malaysia  on Wednesday, with rescuers searching for at least 37  people, Malaysian officials said.

Officials said 58 people had been rescued or made it to land by themselves after the accident around midnight near Port Klang.

‘‘But 37 people are still missing and we have found two bodies,’’ said Mohamad Hambali Yaakup, head of the Port Klang office of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).

The passengers included women and children and the boat was not fit for a sea voyage, said Muhammad Zuri, another MMEA official.

A rescue official said the boat left from Malaysia’s Carey Island, an area roughly a fifth the size of Singapore that is dominated by oil palm plantations.

‘‘From interviews with those rescued, they said they were returning to Aceh [in Indonesia]. They did not have any travel documents,’’ said Mr  Yaakup.

Malaysia has long been a magnet for illegal immigrants from Indonesia and other poorer countries in the region.

Many undocumented Indonesians work in Malaysia’s vast oil palm plantations, a mainstay of its economy.

Malaysian rescuers were scouring the area for more survivors and had deployed a helicopter, one large ship and four smaller boats in the operation, officials said.  Several fishing boats were also helping with rescue efforts. 

The MMEA said the boat sank  about  1am in the Strait of Malacca off the Malaysian coastal town of Banting.

Despite periodic crackdowns on illegal workers, Malaysia is home to an estimated 2 million undocumented immigrants,  about 7 per cent of its 29 million population.

The question of migrant workers has long been a touchy issue in Indonesia. Both candidates in the July 9 Indonesian presidential race have said that overseas workers, often doing menial labour, need better protection.

 The Indonesian workers in the latest incident were apparently returning home to celebrate the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

‘‘This time of the year, we experience strong waves so accidents really happen,’’ said one official,  who asked not to be named because he was not an authorised spokesman. ‘‘The survivors are in a state of shock but we are taking care of them.’’
 
Reuters, agencies