People smugglers have cancelled plans to send at least 50 asylum seekers by boat from West Java, Indonesia to New Zealand following a Sunday Star-Times investigation.
The paper infiltrated an operation to smuggle asylum seekers to New Zealand via West Papua using two boats, one for "safety".
It would have been a treacherous journey of more than 7000km and one asylum seeker in Indonesia who was opposed to the voyage said he believed it would have ended in tragedy. The publicity had "saved many lives", he said.
The smugglers behind the operation had claimed the voyage would take as little as 12 days from West Papua, the Indonesian captain had supposedly sailed the route before and the New Zealand Government would "welcome" the asylum seekers.
Video of the boats involved showed they were bigger than vessels normally used in the 200km voyage to Australia's Christmas Island - the main vessel was 32m long and 7m high and said to have a metal hull.
Nearly two weeks ago eight cars left Cisarua, 60km south of Jakarta, where the asylum seekers had been holed up for several weeks, and headed to the coast. Sources said police intercepted the convoy and sent everyone back to Cisarua.
One of the smugglers behind the plot, Murtaza Khan of Pakistan, had told passengers they would sail again in a few days, but after the publicity the voyage was cancelled.
Murtaza called an emergency meeting and began a witch-hunt to find out who leaked the information, blaming one of his fellow agents.
Passengers who had paid deposits were furious and were demanding their money back, sources said, but at this stage it appeared the money was "lost".
Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said the Star-Times investigation "clearly demonstrates there is ongoing activity, that New Zealand is in the sights of people smugglers in the region, and underscores the importance of the steps taken by the Government to deter and manage a possible future mass arrival".
Woodhouse said people smuggling was a multimillion-dollar industry. The voyage to New Zealand was perilous and the risk of capsizing high.
"I've always said that people smugglers are liars and criminals. We know for a fact they will say anything to encourage their victims into their dangerous and overcrowded boats.
"Contrary to the lies being spread by smugglers to potential customers, New Zealand is not a soft touch, and we will not welcome asylum seekers by boat to New Zealand."
Woodhouse said anyone who made it as part of a mass arrival would be subject to six months' detention while they were processed, with no guarantee of being allowed to remain long term.
He fired a shot at rivals who maintained the chances of a boat arriving were virtually zero.
"The opposition's head-in-the-sand approach to a potential mass arrival to New Zealand is increasingly being seen for what it is."
It was at least the third planned attempt to send people by boats to New Zealand in recent weeks.
Another operation via West Papua was disrupted when four passengers were arrested in Jayapura while travelling to link with a boat and a plan to set sail from West Sumatra was later cancelled.
Fairfax Media revealed during the week that people smugglers were looking at other methods for bringing people to New Zealand, including in shipping containers or as "crew" on commercial vessels.
Prime Minister John Key warned that "the landscape has changed" as a result of Australia's tough line on 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," he told Fairfax.
Labour opposed legislation last year allowing for the detention of "mass arrivals" of 30 or more people but leader David Cunliffe would not commit to overturning that in Government.
"We believe that this is a matter we can only resolve once we are in government and had the opportunity to review the law, taking into account the latest intelligence and all other relevant information," he said.
- Sunday Star Times