Late on Wednesday night, eight cars full of asylum seekers slipped quietly out of the hillside town of Cisarua and headed for the coast.
They carried 50 desperate men and women who were intending to board a waiting boat and set off into the night.
This movement was reminiscent of hundreds of other people-smuggling ventures in recent years. But in one critical respect it was different and immeasurably more dangerous.
These people — Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Afghans — were not intending to travel the 440 kilometres to Christmas Island. They faced instead an 8000 kilometre journey across one of the world’s most treacherous oceans, final destination: New Zealand.
The trip was thwarted. The cars were intercepted by Indonesian police, whom the smugglers believed they had paid off, and the passengers sent back to Cisarua where they are now waiting for another chance.
A joint Fairfax Media and New Zealand’s Sunday Star-Times investigation has laid bare the desperation and lies behind the New Zealand option, the latest twist in the asylum-seeker story, and the potential disaster that awaits any who attempt the journey.
“No one’s ever got to New Zealand [by leaky boat] in modern times,” New Zealand ambassador to Indonesia, David Taylor, says.
“You’ve got reefs one side [Australia’s eastern coast] and the Indian ocean the other side [to the west]. They are long distances, the seas there are very fickle … so it’s a pipe dream”.
And yet a number of sources in Cisarua and elsewhere have confirmed that Murtaza Khan, a Pakistani travel agent, and three other smugglers, Khawaja Nisar, Tarik Ayub and a man called Abbas, have marketed this boat as safe. They also say it’s the first of many.
Sources said as the passengers waited for weeks before embarkation day in a villa in Cisarua, playing cards and making flat bread, they were told repeatedly that the boat was safe. They were shown pictures and videos of the alleged vessel, its two large engines and provisions — images obtained exclusively by Fairfax Media.
Murtaza described the boat as metal-hulled, 32m long and 7m high, and said it would sail as far as West Papua (the Indonesian half of New Guinea), with a second, smaller boat, also pictured, travelling behind as back up.
He said they would sail close to the Indonesian coast, not within international waters, for fear the Australian navy would catch them and return them to Indonesia.
(Asked if Australia was legally able to intercept and turn back a boat whose destination was New Zealand, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said he would not comment about on-water activities.)
Once the boat had stopped and reprovisioned in West Papua, the second boat would return to Java and the first one sail alone the rest of the way to the ultimate destination, Kaitaia, in New Zealand’s north-west. An alternative landing place, if the boat was in trouble, they said, was the rugged and uninhabited Three Kings Islands, which belong to New Zealand.
“It will be a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 12 days on the ocean,” Murtaza has told passengers — an absurdly optimistic assessment.
The price per passenger — $US500 up front and a full payment of between $US5000 for the Afghans and Bangladeshis and $US7000 for the Indians — is cheap, barely more than the trip to Australia once cost. The idea at this stage is not to make a big profit; it’s to prove it can be done and open a new way out of Indonesia so that more passengers follow.
“You can be sure if one boat gets to New Zealand, the price will increase,” one people smuggler’s agent has told passengers.
New Zealand, he said, “wants people to come”.
“They are looking forward to seeing asylum seekers. They need them because the population is very small.”
They say that asylum seekers can settle quickly there, after which getting permission to cross the Tasman to Australia is a formality.
Ambassador Taylor says most of these statements are false. There has never been a “mass arrival” in New Zealand (defined as more than 30 people), but the government recently passed laws to deal with them. Taylor says his country may not even be their ultimate aim.
“They know they can’t [get there] and [perhaps] they’re hoping to get to a certain point and then duck in to Australia”.
Murtaza has form for lying. A boat he arranged in September last year was billed to passengers as having “dinner and rooms,” but it was tiny and open to the elements, and promptly sank off the coast of Java forcing its 44 occupants to call Australia for help.
“Murtaza is crazy for money,” says one asylum seeker in Indonesia. “He is making crazy promises because Australia is blocked. If they go to New Zealand, maybe all of them will die.”
But the fact that 50 passengers are impatient to make the journey is an expression of their desperation.
More than 10,000 asylum seekers and refugees are waiting in Indonesia and 100 more arrive every week. Tony Abbott’s and Scott Morrison’s success at turning back the boats has stoppered them in a place where they cannot work or get their children educated, and where it may take three years or more to be resettled through the so-called “front door”.
Fairfax Media has learnt that among those on board are some who have already faced Australia’s hard-edged response.
At least one passenger was aboard the first orange lifeboat sent under Operation Sovereign Borders in January. [[LINK:http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/asylum-seekers-say-they-were-tricked-by-navy-20140116-30xtz.html]]
Two others tried in March [[LINK: http://www.smh.com.au/world/people-smugglers-in-indonesia-selling-spots-on-boat-to-new-zealand-20140410-zqt3l.html]] to get to New Zealand with a different venture but were arrested instead in West Papua. They escaped, made their way back to Cisarua, and are trying again.
Others have run out of money and cannot afford to stay in Indonesia, or have paid all their money in the past to people smugglers for aborted or sunk ships and have been told they only have one choice — to travel.
An earlier attempt to reach New Zealand was aborted in March and another in early April involved smuggler Abu Ali amassing 23 people in West Sumatra on the premise that they could sail even further — 10,000km — around Australia’s southern coast to New Zealand. It was cancelled because not enough passengers were willing to try.
Other smugglers have even tried to sell tickets to the relatively closer Norfolk Island, claiming wrongly that is part of New Zealand — it is in fact an external territory of Australia and its immigration regime is also very unaccepting.
The story New Zealand is the new destination for desperate asylum seekers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.