"Rumours are rife in towns where asylum seekers gather that Indonesian police and immigration authorities are encouraging people to get on boats". Photo: Sharon Tisdale
People smugglers are telling asylum seekers that bad diplomatic relations between Australia and Indonesia mean the route by boat to Christmas Island is once again open for business.
The same smuggler is offering a cut-rate fee of as low as $1800 to entice people onto boats
New evidence obtained by Fairfax Media shows asylum seekers are being told not to fear arrest by Indonesian police because co-operation has been suspended in light of the phone-tapping affair.
"Nowadays it is a safe time to go to Australia because my country and Australia have a bad diplomatic relationship," one smuggler's agent in the West Java town of Cisarua told a potential client.
In a secretly recorded conversation, one agent claimed to be working with a prominent smuggler, who cannot be named to protect a source. The agent specifically referred to the deteriorating relations between Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in his pitch.
"The Australian government doesn't want to apologise to the Indonesian government, maybe ... the relations will be try to get better, but for this time Australia don't want to say an apology. That makes our government angry."
The agent also referred to fact the Indonesian National Police has been ordered by the President not to co-operate with the Australian Federal Police on people smuggling.
"Maybe two or three months ago [Australian police] could interfere because [Indonesia and Australia] still have a relationship, but nowadays they ... cannot do anything ... When [the Australian Federal Police] try to ask police to arrest, he can't do it because we don't have a relationship," the agent said.
"Police ... not catch smuggler any more, and so many people, mostly Pakistan and Afghanistan and Myanmar, ready to go."
The smuggler's agent said now was the time to go because the poor relationship would only last a limited time.
"I am sure that Australia wants to make a good relationship again with Indonesia," he said.
The same smuggler is offering a cut-rate fee of as low as $1800 to entice people onto boats. Smugglers have been faced with a steep decline in demand for their services since the introduction of the Nauru and Papua New Guinea policies, leading many to conclude that "the way is closed".
It is impossible to tell how much the new talk by people smugglers is a marketing spiel and whether asylum seekers are convinced by it. Boat arrivals since Indonesia withdrew co-operation from Australia on November 20 do not yet show a clear trend.
In the week ending November 15, three boats arrived with a total of 163 people on board. In the week leading up to the cancellation of co-operation only one arrived, with 35 on board, according to Operation Sovereign Borders.
In the week immediately after the announcement, one boat with nine aboard arrived. But last week, the second since relations chilled, four boats carrying a total of 185 asylum seekers landed at Christmas Island.
Rumours are rife in towns where asylum seekers gather that Indonesian police and immigration authorities are encouraging people to get on boats.
One rumour says immigration officials are strong-arming people whose refugee claims have been rejected by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to either go back to their home countries or get on a boat to Australia.
On Monday, a wooden boat carrying 30 people sank off the southern coast of Java, killing three people including a toddler.
Mr Yudhoyono and his Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, have suggested that the situation will not be normalised until well into next year after the two countries have gone through a six-stage process and developed a new spying protocol.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said "people smugglers lie and spreads rumours to get people on their boats".
"The truth is that anyone who gets on a boat will not get what they paid for. They will be met by the strongest border protection policies Australia has ever seen and a government that will never honour the promises the people smugglers make."