People smugglers in Indonesia are mounting their first credible attempt to ship asylum seekers on the hazardous voyage to New Zealand and circumvent the Abbott government's Operation Sovereign Borders.
Four men - two from Bangladesh and two from Afghanistan - were caught last month by the Indonesian immigration department in Jayapura, West Papua, on their way to get a boat to New Zealand.
Their capture appears to have stalled, for the time being, a plot to send up to 100 people, but sources in West Java say people smugglers in the town of Cisarua are still advertising for places on a New Zealand-bound boat.
The smugglers are showing asylum seekers a grainy picture, obtained by Fairfax Media, of the boat they say they have bought for the venture, which is larger and sturdier looking than the typical fishing vessel and has covered cabins and navigational antennae.
One of the men in custody, Bangladeshi Mohammad Saiful Islam Tanu told Fairfax Media that when he had arrived earlier this year from Malaysia to Cisarua - where many asylum seekers wait as they try to get to Australia - he had been told by others that the Abbott government had "closed the way".
"The Australian government already is closed [the way] because every boat going to Australia comes back to Indonesia. So many people say it's impossible. Now we not try to go to Australia," Mr Saiful said.
"What can I do? And [a people smuggler] Mr Jafar told me, 'You can go to New Zealand from Papua'."
Mr Saiful said the smugglers had told them that it was easier to be accepted in New Zealand than Australia.
"Everyone is talking New Zealand. There is every facility ... Jafar said you go to New Zealand [and after] only one month and you can take citizenship, and after that you can try [to go to] a big country, every other country.
"He said it would take 10 days or one week on a boat."
Mr Saiful said each of the four had given the smuggler $US500 (NZ$570) and had received plane tickets from Jakarta to Jayapura. They were told that 42 others were already waiting in Papua for the boat to be ready. The boat trip was to cost $US5000 and be paid for later.
Samuel Enock, the head of immigration law enforcement at the Jayapura immigration office in West Papua, said the four men had arrived in Jayapura on a Lion Air flight on March 8 and were arrested on March 13 in a hotel near the airport. They were waiting to fly to Merauke on Papua's southern coast, from where they planned to set sail.
"These people didn't carry proper travel documents," he said. "The only document they have is the UNHCR asylum seeker certificate. They used it as an official document to stay and travel. The documents looked like new - they were issued in December 2013 and January 2014."
Mr Enock said he had heard of 40 or more other people waiting in Papua for the boat, but was still investigating if it was true.
Another asylum seeker source said the boat was a joint venture involving several West Java people smugglers, including a Pakistani man known as Sher Ali, and others called Jasim, Mosin and an unidentified Indonesian. The source said the plan had been to send up to 100 people, but it had been "cancelled" because of the capture of the four in Jayapura.
However, another source said recruiting efforts were still underway in Cisarua.
A spokeswoman for the New Zealand embassy in Jakarta said New Zealand had never had a "mass arrival" (defined as 30 or more), but that "we are aware that people smugglers continue to express interest in targeting New Zealand through a variety of avenues, including both air and sea routes".
"We have real concerns about the safety of people smuggling ventures heading into the southern waters - criminal groups organising such ventures are endangering people's lives," the spokeswoman said.
Though New Zealand has been protected from the rash of asylum seekers by its distance, it has passed relatively tough new laws in case of this development. Anyone coming as part of a mass arrival can be detained until their circumstances are assessed. Even for those found eligible, there is no guarantee of permanent residence.
- SYDNEY MORNING HERALD