People-smugglers have begun using the Australian navy as a collection service with asylum-seeker boats issuing distress calls even when they are not in trouble, it was claimed yesterday.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said it appeared to be a disturbing new trend during the ferrying of boat people to Australia’s remote Christmas Island territory, mainly from Indonesian waters.
“Australian naval and customs vessels are now effectively being co-opted by people-smugglers to deliver their passengers for them to Christmas Island,” he said.
“This is not why Australians joined the navy,” he said.
The comments follow navy and customs vessels going to the aid of two asylum-seeker boats this week after receiving emergency calls, despite at least one of them showing no obvious signs of need.
Both were inside Indonesian waters and a naval vessel took the passengers on board. Another boat carrying up to 180 people appeared to use a similar tactic last week.
The Australian newspaper said people-smugglers were instructing asylum-seekers to call Australian rescue crews hours after leaving the Indonesian coast.
“They are not in trouble, they are lying,” it quoted sources close to the smuggling trade in Jakarta as saying.
The source said people-smugglers were emboldened after Australia sought and was given Indonesian permission to rescue survivors of two capsized boats last month within their waters.
Some 94 people are estimated to have drowned after the two boats went down on the perilous sea route.
“The people-smugglers tell them, ‘Just call the Australians and they will come and get you,’” the source said.
Canberra is facing a steady influx of asylum-seekers arriving by boat, many using Indonesia as a transit hub, boarding leaky wooden vessels there after fleeing their home countries.
Australia wants to deter boat people by transferring them to Malaysia for processing in exchange for accepting thousands of that nation’s registered refugees for resettlement.
However, the minority government has been unable to pass the necessary legislation because of opposition in the Australian parliament.