Dirty deals fuel cut-price people smuggling trade
ASYLUM seekers could travel to Australia for as little as $1500, as people smugglers look to reactivate the trade by purchasing boats out of Indonesia.
A special News Corp investigation has identified two fishing ports on the north coast of Java where smugglers are looking to buy vessels for around $30,000.
And an area of south Jakarta, where asylum-seekers and refugees congregate, has been highlighted as a potential recruiting ground for passengers.
Sailors from Sulawesi would likely be brought in to skipper the short 320km journey to Christmas Island.
The smugglers have earned such a dirty reputation they can only attract passengers by offering slashed rates of around $1500 per person - well down on the $8000 charged at the height of the trade six years ago.
This comes as it can be revealed the south coast of Java is on high alert for boats moving down to collect passengers.
An Indonesian intelligence source told News Corp Australia that Tegal, and nearby Cirebon, both on the north coast of Java and several hundred kilometres east of the capital, Jakarta, are now in the smugglers' sights.
Tegal is known as a "shortcut" port, where second-hand engines, clothing, timber, narcotics and alcohol are smuggled into Indonesia.
The crammed waterfront is also the place where people smugglers are hoping to acquire cheap boats to reactivate the deadly asylum-seeker trade to Australia.
"Smugglers are looking for good prices, not good boats," said the intelligence officer. "We hear they are looking for boats on the north coast."
Locals in Tegal said a smaller 80 tonne vessel in poor condition - similar to those seen in Australian waters many times during the last big wave of human traffic between 2007 and 2014 - could be acquired for $30,000.
A real clapped-out death trap, such as the smugglers prefer, would go for much less.
The intelligence source said there was no crime in selling a boat, but word had come down from senior command that the coming Australian election would see a renewed push for Christmas Island and they were now watching for boats moving down to collect passengers.
Last year, when a small boatload of asylum-seekers trying to get to Australia was repelled by heavy weather and forced into shelter at the southern port of Pelabuhan Ratu, they told interrogators they'd each paid $1500 for their passage.
That is a huge price drop from peak season six years ago, when the fare was $8000 per person.
"Indonesia has received a warning from the Australian embassy about the opening gate," the officer said. "My estimation is something big is coming. I have heard a lot of talk."
A federal government source said there were no "warnings" as such, but regular discussions between Australian and Indonesian intelligence counterparts. He said the Australian government was unaware of these specific developments.
The Indonesian source, a veteran of the last surge when 50,000 people made their way to Australia on boats - and an estimated 1000 didn't, dying at sea - said a vast citizen-informer network had been activated along the coastline to keep watch.
The officer said he was not aware of the medivac issue which will see some refugees on Manus Island and Nauru come to Australia for treatment, but he had heard that the Christmas Island detention centre was reopening.
"That is a green light from Australia," he said. "Even a small change like that, the smugglers will take up the challenge.
"We have also heard Australia is facing an election so smugglers are using this so asylum-seekers can get to Australia."
The smuggling network went into hibernation after the boats mostly stopped in 2014 but its agents have remained ever-ready to redeploy. "They never went away," the officer said.
At a small Pakistani cafe in Menteng, central Jakarta, an asylum-seeker said he could not to talk to News Corp within eyeshot of a table of three well-dressed Middle-Eastern men all carrying multiple smartphones.
The cafe is said to be the place to go to discuss price and passage.
The source said fishermen on the south coast, once intimately involved in the trade, now want little to do with it having experienced Australian prisons and tragedies at sea.
Now is the season for baby lobsters caught in sea-floor cages and they make good money selling them at A$8 each; added to that, Indonesia is successfully hunting out vessels from Thailand, Taiwan, Myanmar and Vietnam fishing illegally in their waters, meaning stocks are improving and they have less reason to crew asylum boats.
The officer expected passengers would still be trucked down to the south coast to meet vessels and said it was likely sailors from Sulawesi would be recruited to take the short 320km journey to Christmas Island.
"They will certainly stop in this area to set sail," he said. "This is the pick-up zone."
The smugglers know one of the richest potential recruiting grounds for passengers is Kalibata, an area of south Jakarta where asylum-seekers and refugees gather in great numbers.
Murtaza Ali, a 21-year-old Hazara living in Jakarta who has a brother in Australia, said smugglers were putting out the word.
"The talk among my refugee friends that the illegal way will be open soon," Ali said.
"There is a lot of propaganda from the smugglers that soon Australia will open the way. The refugees are tired and depressed and the smugglers want to take advantage.
"People are now thinking about the boats. I would go if I could borrow the money. People are waiting for others to go first and see what happens. If it works, of course I will go."
Between 2007 and 2014, Indonesian authorities seemed incapable or disinclined to stop boats that were departing in huge numbers in plain view.
The trade had got so out of control that the source said "bad police and bad military" were escorting busloads of asylum-seekers to their boats with weapons. Six such officials were arrested after a boat went down off the village of Cidaun in 2013.
The Bali Process on people trafficking, co-chaired by Indonesia and Australia, appears to have created better understanding that the trade serves neither country's interests.