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'New MO?' Indonesians want Australia to share information on people smugglers

Sydney Morning Herald - February 21, 2024

Zach Hope, Amilia Rosa and Karuni Rompies, Jakarta – Indonesian police are calling on Australian authorities to share information about how recently arrived asylum seekers managed to avoid detection, so they can step up prevention efforts.

The call came as a local fishers' association warned people smugglers may be using risky monsoon conditions off West Java to sneak past the watch of patrols.

The 39 asylum seekers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India who made it to Western Australia last week are believed to have departed from Indonesia, though the precise location remains unclear. They are now in a Nauru detention centre alongside another 12 asylum seekers who made it to north-west coast of Australia in November.

"Is it a new modus operandi?" asked crime division boss of West Timor police, Patar Silalahi, whose patch takes in Rote Island, about 500 kilometres off the Western Australian coast.

"How did the smugglers manage to evade the Australian Border Force? Are they using more sophisticated equipment to detect the Australians and thus evade them? If [Australia] can share, we can use it."

Patar said he had no intelligence about any boats leaving Rote since 2022, when a voyage was intercepted and turned back by Australia.

"Everybody who was involved was arrested and processed. I mean everybody," he said. "We educated the locals to make sure they no longer fall for the people smugglers' lure.

"The people in Rote are now content with fishing and seaweed farming. I am sure they won't do it again, not after they see what happened to the crew who got arrested."

Another known transit point to Australia's north-west coast is the province of West Java. As recently as late November, police there arrested four Bangladeshi nationals who had allegedly arranged a boat to Australia from the coastal town of Citepus.

The asylum seekers and their crew were seemingly willing to brave the summer monsoon, which can whip up dangerous swells in the region from October through February. According to Slamet Ari Nugroho, a coordinator with the Indonesia Traditional Fishermen Association, the conditions could be challenging even for Australian patrol boats.

"Maybe this situation is used by the illegal boats trying to seek asylum because they know when authorities are paying less attention [and] not going out to the sea," he said. "They [asylum seekers] risk their lives, but they still do it because at that time the supervision is lax."

He said Indonesian authorities would generally take shelter during large seas. Yuhanis Antara, a spokesman for the Indonesian Coast Guard, said crews closely monitored deteriorating conditions.

"I don't think we reduce the patrols," he said. "If it is only two to three-metre [waves], we are still able to patrol because a coast guard vessel is 80 metres."

However, any swell four metres and above was a captain's call, he said.

Australian vessels, which range between 40 metres and 111 metres, are another matter. This masthead asked Australian Border Force if the monsoon – or assumption about illegal boats not daring the conditions – were factors in patrol decisions and target locations.

It did not answer the questions, but said agents assessed safety standards, while the prioritisation of resources was based on evidence and intelligence.

The ABF confirmed in Senate estimates last year that total aerial surveillance decreased by 14 per cent compared to the previous year. Officials attributed this to a difficulty in recruiting pilots. There were also 6 per cent fewer maritime patrol days, largely because of Australia's ageing fleet and maintenance issues.

Australia and Indonesia share an expansive maritime boundary, and Slamet from the fishers' association said there were more Indonesian fishing boats operating illegally in Australian waters than there were patrol crews.

"It is not only about the monsoon. There is no way that they are able to capture each illegal boat," he said.

Patar from West Timor said it was usually too expensive and complicated for smugglers to drop off their human cargo and attempt to return the boat to Indonesia. "From our experience, they have written off the cost of the boat taking them to Australia," he said.

In previous missions, crews had sailed into the path of Australian Border Force agents who would take the asylum seekers for processing and destroy the boats.

What happened to the boats that were used to reach Australia this time around is unclear, raising concerns people smugglers were using more advanced ships and making it back to Indonesia without punishment.

Source: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/new-mo-indonesians-want-australia-to-share-information-on-people-smugglers-20240220-p5f67b.htm