People-smugglers bid to sail first boat to NZ

Intelligence supplied to the Government confirms New Zealand is increasingly being talked up by people smugglers as a destination for asylum seekers.

Prime Minister John Key said revelations in the Sunday Star Times today about desperate asylum seekers paying thousands of dollars to reach New Zealand by boat were no surprise.

"It's confirmation of what we see through our intelligence reporting which is that New Zealand is a location that's being talked about. There have been missions that have been planned to come to New Zealand. Many of them have been disrupted and it's probably likely that New Zealand is moving up the list of desirable locations now."

Fairfax followed a bid by about 50 asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh to reach New Zealand after they holed up in a villa south of Indonesia's capital Jakarta for weeks waiting to board a boat.

The passengers, all adults, had paid people-smugglers deposits of about $US500 ($585), with the remaining $US5000 ($5800) or so due if they reached their destination.

Key said the revelations were "a concern" but not a surprise.

"For quite a while now we've been saying to New Zealanders look there is a real risk here that we get a mass migration from boat people. I acknowledge it's very difficult to achieve, we're a long way away from the kind of places they would leave, particularly Indonesia, and it's treacherous water but there's no question that the landscape has changed somewhat. Australia is seen as a place boat people are much less likely to get to easily and so now they're showing interest in other locations and New Zealand is one of those."

In the case followed followed by Fairfax, the group was turned around by corrupt officials at the last minute.

We obtained video footage of the boats involved in the plan, listened to secret recordings of a money-changer talking about New Zealand as the best option now that Australia is "closed", and, posing as an asylum seeker, contacted the smuggling kingpin.

Last night, sources in Cisarua who had spoken directly to the smugglers said corrupt police were demanding more money to let the boat go, and the Indonesian captain was demanding $US2500 ($2900) in advance.

Increasingly desperate, the smugglers are now offering berths for just $US2500, as long as it is paid up-front.

No asylum boat has ever made it to New Zealand but the current operation is the third attempt in recent months. In March, four men were arrested in Jayapura, West Papua on their way to link with a boat, and last month asylum seekers gathered in West Sumatra for a proposed voyage down Australia's west coast that was cancelled.

A source said two of the men arrested in Jayapura had managed to escape immigration authorities, made their way to Cisarua, and  were among those who headed to the beach last Wednesday.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said last night there was "no doubt" New Zealand was a target for people-smugglers, especially since boats had stopped arriving in Australia under their staunch Operation Sovereign Borders turn-back policy.

"The threat of an attempt is real," he said. "Despite the lies told by smugglers to their vulnerable victims, any attempted journey would be utterly perilous and put lives at risk."

He said the smugglers, who he called "heinous criminals" were making false promises of an easy path to residency. "We have taken steps to plan and prepare for if and when the first boat makes it through."

Last year the Government controversially changed immigration law, enabling asylum seekers who arrive in groups of 30 or more to be detained for up to six months.

Key said while the rules had been tightened, unscrupulous people smugglers were telling people a different storty.

"I suspect the people smugglers probably understand that the rules have toughened up in New Zealand but they will tell a very different message to those that are looking to seek asylum. In reality these are desperate people who are looking for a better life so they will want to believe the dream that somehow they will get access into New Zealand. In fact as we know ...whether going to Australia or New Zealand or anywhere else it's an extremely dangerous voyage and many people have lost their lives."

The Star-Times can reveal that the smugglers behind the latest operation are Murtaza Khan from Pakistan, a man known as Khawaja, from India, and another called Tarik.

Another agent, known as Sultan, is based in West Papua. The plan had been to set sail from a beach near Jakarta in two boats, one for "safety", and head to Papua, hugging the coast to avoid Indonesian or Australian vessels.

They would then meet the Papua-based agent and resupply before heading to New Zealand.

Passengers were told the trip to Papua would take about a week, and the voyage to New Zealand about 12 days. The Indonesian captain of the boat was said to know the route because he had sailed to New Zealand before.

The plan was to make landfall on the uninhabited Three Kings Islands off Cape Reinga or somewhere near Kaitaia, and once in New Zealand waters use satellite phones to contact local media.

"When the media knows, [the government] can't turn it back," Murtaza told a source.

The source added: "Murtaza says Australia is closed and nobody else will take [people] to New Zealand, so he'll take."

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Sunday Star Times