Chris Barrett and Karuni Rompies, Singapore/Jakarta – Indonesian police have swooped on a group of Bangladeshi nationals as they prepared to board a boat to Australia after paying a people smuggler $10,000 each.
Police in Indonesia's West Java province said they had arrested four Bangladeshi men in a late-night operation after receiving a tip-off that a boat was being arranged to leave from the coastal town of Citepus. Seven other men due to take the vessel evaded capture.
"Based on local people's information, some foreigners wanted to go to Australia through the Citepus waters, so we went out and tried to find them," said Ali Jupri, the chief detective of Sukabumi Regency police.
"They were at the Citepus village, waiting for the boat. They arrived there in a Grab [ride-hailing] car and we chased them. It was not a quiet arrest – we chased them. It was a bit chaotic because they tried to run away."
The arrests were made last Thursday, in the same week that a boatload of asylum seekers turned up on the coastline of Western Australia after setting off from Indonesia, the first such arrival to mainland Australia in nine years.
That group was sent to Nauru for processing, but news of the landing intensified a political storm confronting the Albanese government over the release of 141 foreigners from detention following a High Court ruling that they could no longer be held indefinitely.
Jupri said the apprehended quartet told officers they wanted to go to Christmas Island. "They said they were promised to work in a [vegetable] plantation. They said the boat was already waiting in Citepus. We went there but found nothing," he said.
According to the district police chief, the Bangladeshi men, who are aged between 26 and 58, had entered Indonesia legally, arriving in Surabaya from Malaysia by plane and staying in a guesthouse there for a month before travelling to Sukabumi by chartered bus.
They admitted they had each handed over the equivalent of 100 million rupiah ($9750) to a people smuggler for the journey to Australia, making the payments in Malaysian ringgit before they flew to Indonesia.
Police believe the boat organiser, who is also Bangladeshi and lives with his Indonesian wife, is part of a wider smuggling syndicate, and regard those who paid for the trip as victims.
"We cannot trace him for the moment as these people cannot say where he lives in Surabaya," said Jupri, who added that it was the first attempted boat departure for Australia detected this year by police in that region of West Java.
"We [will] keep investigating. We are happy to be able to stop them from going to Australia. We cannot imagine if they went on and something bad happened while on the waters. It wouldn't be good."
Asked this week whether Indonesia was stepping up patrolling the waters between the archipelago and Australia after last week's boat arrival in Western Australia, Indonesia's Director General of Immigration Silmy Karim responded: "We are tightening up the entrance into Indonesia, and the immigration co-operation between Indonesia and Australia is very good."
The Bangladeshi men appear to have only spent a short time in Indonesia and travelled there specifically as a point from which to reach Australian territory.
But even had they made their way to Christmas Island, as police said they intended, they would have been turned around and returned to Indonesia under Australia's border protection policy.
There are more than 14,000 registered refugees in Indonesia, many of whom have been stranded for more than a decade. Many previously tried to make it to Australia by boat before the then-Abbott government toughened maritime security with the launch of Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013.
Refugee Action Coalition spokesman Ian Rintoul said it was well understood by refugees in Indonesia – about half of whom are ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan – that it was almost impossible to make it to Australia by boat now.
But desperate conditions on the ground, including rising poverty among refugees and low prospects of resettlement, are putting extreme pressure on communities there.
"It's not going to surprise me if we see more people trying to come," he said. "People have run out of options."
Rintoul, whose organisation conducted research on refugees in Indonesia last year, said there was also a high level of resentment towards Australia from people who didn't get on a boat at the urging of Australian authorities 10 or more years ago, but were never processed for re-settlement after being told they would be.
Australia does not take in any refugees who arrived in Indonesia after July 1, 2014.