Indonesian authorities have warned of a huge new wave of asylum seekers heading for Australia, with as many as 10,000 waiting in Malaysia to make the journey via Indonesia.
About 1500 asylum seekers have already arrived in Indonesia this year and registered for refugee status, almost all of them having come by boat from Malaysia. The same number again are believed to have arrived and not registered.
Indonesian police intelligence suggests between 7000 and 10,000 more people are waiting in Malaysia to make the journey once their passage is organised by people smugglers.
"It could be 10,000," said Eko Danianto, head of the people smuggling unit at the Indonesian National Police. They included people from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Burma and Iraq.
Asylum seekers use Malaysia as a staging point because they can easily obtain tourist visas. There is a large network of people smugglers servicing the 1 million Indonesian illegal workers who regularly go back and forth between the two countries by boat. These same networks also help arrange passage to Australia.
On Saturday, Malaysian authorities arrested 36 Afghans and six Pakistanis being smuggled to Australia via Indonesia.
On Sunday, a boat carrying 194 people, mostly Sri Lankans, was intercepted near Christmas Island. Immigration sources said the boat was believed to have come from Malaysia. It was the biggest boatload of asylum seekers to reach Australia in eight years.
An Australian immigration enforcement official warned of the potential for a similar influx to the thousands who began arriving from the late 1990s. "When they start getting big numbers through on a boat, they (people smugglers) get credibility and they get money. It becomes a virtuous cycle for them," the official said.
"We have got a serious problem. This is like the late 1990s revisited."
Australia and Indonesia have stepped up co-operation on people smugglers and have disrupted more boats than the 16 that have reached Australia so far this year.
With Australian financial support and technical backing, the Indonesian Government will announce tomorrow the creation of up to 12 police "strike teams" dedicated to combating human trafficking.
But a new wave of asylum seekers from Malaysia will sorely test that new capability.
Aegile Fernandez, co-ordinator of the Malaysian immigration support group Tenaganita, agreed that up to 10,000 asylum seekers were in Malaysia and planning to come to Australia.
"I would put the blame on these agencies that have been promising Australia as the destination," she said.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has 49,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers on its books in Malaysia and estimates there are 45,000 unregistered illegal immigrants. The Australian Government declined to comment on the number of asylum seekers in Malaysia targeting Australia. But one source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "It could be 10,000. It could be 5000 or 20,000. We just don't know."
- Asylum seekers heading to Australia know little about the country before their arrival, let alone the intricacies of immigration policy, new research suggests.
Challenging the idea that asylum seekers are "knowledgeable deviants" capitalising on weakened policies, Charles Sturt University academic Roslyn Richardson said strong deterrent messages from governments did not cut through.
"People smugglers do not pass on detailed policy information," she said. In a study, the reasons 27 refugees gave for coming to Australia centred on its comparative cheapness and accessibility.
Going to Western Europe, for example, required passage through multiple checkpoints, she said. The research contradicts Opposition claims that policy changes last year led to a surge in boat arrivals.
With YUKO NARUSHIMA