Struggle to fill asylum boats
Rough going: People smugglers are having difficulty filling boats. Picture: Alex McKinnon/The North West Telegraph

People smugglers are struggling to fill vessels despite offering big discounts to asylum seekers as the Federal Government's policy on boats appears to be working as it intended.

The West Australian has been told a boat recently intercepted by Border Protection Command had only 35 people aboard when normally it would have been crammed with two or three times that number.

And in a clear sign Indonesian-based criminals are having difficulties finding willing passengers, the 35 people were sourced by nine separate smuggling syndicates.

The offer of cut-price voyages to Australia is being likened to a "going out of business" sale by people smugglers, as the Abbott Government's hardline border protection regime takes effect.

But the Government nevertheless expects people smugglers, some aided by corrupt Indonesian officials, will seek to increase their activity when the monsoon season eases this month and next month.

Asylum seekers in Indonesia have said they are well aware of the Abbott Government's tough border policies and many have given up hope of getting to Australia.

While no boats have reached Australia since December 19, sources have confirmed that Border Protection Command has turned back at least six asylum seeker vessels in the past two months, including the January 15 return of about 60 people on one of the 11 lifeboats bought last month in Singapore for $500,000 apiece.

The Government has thrown a curtain of secrecy over all border protection operations and has refused to confirm tow-backs or turn-backs of asylum vessels.

Late last week, authorities intercepted a boat as it approached Christmas Island and asylum seekers were put into one of the new lifeboats.

Christmas Island residents reported seeing the bright orange vessel being towed by ACV Triton at the weekend.

Agency sources said the lifeboats, which can carry 90 passengers, have been slightly modified to prevent the asylum seekers using them to sail back to Australia.

The 8.5m fully enclosed survival capsules are fitted with navigational equipment, lifejackets, food, water and diesel motors.

Iranian asylum seekers who were returned to Indonesia on January 15 aboard one of the lifeboats said they spent 10 days aboard a navy ship after attempting to scuttle their wooden boat within sight of Christmas Island.

On the 10th day, they said, they were ordered into one of the lifeboats and given documents informing them they would not be allowed to enter Australian waters.

An Indonesian crew piloted the lifeboat to West Java, shadowed by a customs vessel, and the lifeboat was run aground on a jungle beach. It is unclear whether the Australian Government will seek to have the lifeboats returned once used.

The West Australian

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