The deadly, widely used migration route between Indonesia and Malaysia

The image at the left is a screengrab from a TikTok video filmed by an Indonesian migrant travelling on a boat between Malaysia and Indonesia. The image at the right shows the Johor coast guard pulling a capsized boat out of the waves.
The image at the left is a screengrab from a TikTok video filmed by an Indonesian migrant travelling on a boat between Malaysia and Indonesia. The image at the right shows the Johor coast guard pulling a capsized boat out of the waves. © Observers

More than twenty Indonesian migrants died trying to reach Malaysia when their boat capsized on December 15. This is far from an isolated tragedy in the region, say our Observers, who work to help the Indonesians taking these irregular migration routes in the hopes of finding work in Malaysia. 


It was around 4:30am on the morning of December 15, 2021 when the small boat finally capsized off the coast of Malaysia, after being rocked by stormy seas churned up by the monsoon season. The boat, built for about 30 people, was carrying about 50 Indonesian migrants attempting to reach Johor state in southwestern Malaysia. 

At least 21 people died in the shipwreck, with a further 16 reported missing. Only 13 people were rescued, according to the latest numbers, by local rescue workers, who stopped their search for survivors on December 19. 

Images shared by rescue services and the Johor coast guard show teams pulling the boat, which is flipped over, out of the stormy seas. Other images show several body bags containing the remains of the victims laid out on the beach.  

Johor's coast guard shared several photos and videos of the rescue operations on their Facebook page between December 15 and 19.
Tweet by @RebeccaRambar translated from French: “Malaysia: 5 more bodies were found one day after a boat suspected of carrying undocumented people wrecked off the coasts of the state of Johor, in the south of Malaysia, bringing the total dead to 16.

The shipwreck demonstrates the dangers of this irregular migration route, used by many Indonesians, who come to work in agriculture, construction and production in Malaysia, which has a GDP triple the size of their home country’s.

‘Smugglers transport migrants in overcrowded motor boats’ 

Alex Ong is the Malaysia coordinator for "Migrant CARE", an association based in Jakarta that helps Indonesian migrants all over the world. There are of more than 2.5 million Indonesians in Malaysia according to the NGO.

Indonesians have been crossing the ocean and migrating to Malaysia for hundreds of years. The countries share more than just geographical proximity, they also have a very similar culture and language. Malaysia is home to the largest Indonesian diaspora in the world. Many Indonesian communities have existed for years in Malaysia. 

Some Indonesians migrate for economic reasons, but others are displaced by the effects of natural disasters, like volcanic eruptions or typhoons. 

The migrants on board the boat that capsized were from Bali, located in eastern Indonesia. The boat departed from Batam, an Indonesian island located about fifty kilometres from both Malaysia and Singapore. The area is a hub for migration.

Unfortunately, this type of accident is commonplace in this zone [Editor’s note: between Sumatra and western Malaysia]. There are lots of small Indonesian islands located very close to small Malaysian islands, which makes our border very porous and difficult for the coast guard to monitor. Indonesians can go all the way to the Indonesian island of Batam without a passport and, once there, they will try to get a visa for Malaysia. If that doesn’t work, they go for the irregular option and use a smuggler to get to Malaysia. The smugglers transport migrants in overcrowded motor boats, which makes accidents likely.

It’s hard to establish how many Indonesians try to cross by sea, says Alex Ong. He says that the boats that get stopped by the coast guard or that capsize only represent the tip of the iceberg. 

A migrant filmed this overcrowded boat transporting Indonesians returning home from Malaysia in October 2021. The passengers on this boat arrived in Indonesia safely. The caption, written in Indonesian, says that the boat driver is shown waiting for a signal to return to Indonesia.

Between 100,000 and 200,000 Indonesians travel to Malaysia without papers each year, according to Migrant CARE. Once they are there, many do not manage to attain legal status. Others gain legal status and then lose it. Overall, there are more than 1.5 million undocumented Indonesian workers in Malaysia. These people have no social security if they get injured or if their employers decide to fire them or pay them less. Some run the risk of being entrapped in a form of forced labour.


'I remember too many boats that have capsized'

Abdul Aziz Ismail works on the ground to help undocumented migrants return home to Indonesia safely. He is a member of the Anti-Human Trafficking Council in the Malaysian state of Selangor, where the capital, Kuala Lumpur, is located. Many migrants also come ashore in this state, after crossing the Malacca Strait. 

Ismail says that sea routes are most often used by Indonesian migrants seeking to return home, either temporarily to see their family during holidays like Eïd or a wedding, or to move back permanently.

He explained that this route is largely used by people travelling from Malaysia to Indonesia and not vice versa.  

I remember too many boats that have capsized. I have met many migrants who crossed by sea back to Indonesia because they were struggling without legal status in Malaysia and faced possible prosecution. Other times, their employers fail to renew their visas or even confiscate their papers, trapping them and forcing them to work in terrible conditions.  

Ismail took this photo of a shipwreck that took place in the northwest of the country where 18 Indonesians died trying to get home.
Ismail took this photo of a shipwreck that took place in the northwest of the country where 18 Indonesians died trying to get home. © Human Trafficking Watch

I’ve tried to help some young Indonesian girls, who are just 18 and 19. They signed contracts and had all the right papers to come and work in an electric company in Malaysia. But when they arrived, their employers confiscated their papers and their contracts were no longer valid. They were never paid and the employers threatened to report them to the authorities if they tried to leave. 

Human rights organisations have been condemning this system of exploitation, which affects migrants from all over southeastern Asia who come to Malaysia.  

In November 2020, Malaysia set up a program aimed at regularising the status of migrant workers, a plan they hoped to complete before December 31, 2021. This move was largely related to the Covid-19 pandemic, which made conditions worse for migrant workers, who often lost their income suddenly and had no access to protection.

The new procedures were aimed at helping some undocumented migrants to return to their home countries. They would also allow some employers to legally register their migrant workers, without facing legal repercussions.

But Ong says these plans are not enough to halt illegal crossings, especially as not all undocumented migrants would be eligible for regularisation. He says, though, that some Indonesians are hoping that they can obtain the legal right to work in Malaysia through this program that provides temporary amnesty to employers.

Now that the economy is getting going again, the need for foreign labour is increasing again. Many Indonesians who were previously working in Malaysia want to get back there. It’s likely that the migrants on the boat that capsized last week came to work in the palm oil sector, which has high demand for labour at this time of year. But it is a long and complicated process to come to Indonesia legally and migrant workers can’t wait. Neither can Malaysian producers.