Refugees reach mainlandTom Allard in Jakarta
November 29, 2008
INDONESIAN and Australian police have stopped 14 boats laden with asylum seekers from travelling to Australia this year, including at least three in the past six weeks, as people-smuggling activity accelerates across the archipelago.
Four boats have made it to Australian waters. On Thursday, one of them, with 12 Sri Lankans aboard, became the first boat in two years to reach the mainland, near Shark Bay in Western Australia.
Government sources said the arrivals, who were being transferred to Christmas Island, would have access to Australian law should they claim asylum.
The previously undisclosed figures on people-smuggling disruption, confirmed by Australian Federal Police, highlight the success of the joint operation combating human trafficking.
But the data also points to a spike in asylum seekers trying to come to Australia, a politically sensitive issue for the Rudd Government.
This year, the Government softened its policy towards illegal immigrants and has allowed the navy - which intercepts boats - to stand down for two months over Christmas due to a manpower shortage.
"We have a lot of problems with this smuggling," Paulus Purwoko, deputy chief of criminal investigations at Indonesian National Police, told the Herald.
He said the number of boat crossings to Australia had increased, particularly in recent months. "They transit first through Malaysia, then from Malaysia to Indonesia. We believe it is organised by a syndicate.
"When they get to Indonesia, they try to make a deception to the Indonesian police. They throw away their passports. They get a UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] letter of recommendation or ID. Some of them have originals, the rest have fakes."
The Australian Federal Police has played a critical role in combating human trafficking by providing intelligence. But Mr Purwoko said it was difficult to keep tabs on smugglers due to Indonesia's long coastline and because the boats were leaving from different places each time.
He expressed grave fears for the asylum seekers, saying the syndicates use the flimsiest of boats to save money, creating huge risks for their human cargo.
The worst time to attempt the crossing is over summer, when the seas are roughest. It is also when the navy will be undertaking limited operations.
Indonesian police have made numerous arrests, including Afghan, Pakistani and Indonesian nationals. Many of the asylum seekers are from Afghanistan, reflecting the deteriorating security there and rise in persecution against ethnic minorities as the Taliban exerts more control.
Others have come from Iraq, Somalia and Sri Lanka, all countries besieged by violence.
The Herald interviewed two Afghan asylum seekers this week in Jakarta. The men, who cannot be identified because it would jeopardise the safety of their families, said people-smuggling syndicates are paid up to $US12,000 ($18,300) a person.
"They promise they will arrive in Australia or some other country like Britain," said one of the men. They said asylum seekers wanted to come to Australia because it was "safe".
with Yuko Narushima
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