Australian customs turned back 65 people, including a pregnant woman, after their boat reached Australian waters last Tuesday, according to an Indonesian police chief.
The 65 people from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, who reportedly claimed to be asylum seekers, are in detention on the Indonesian island of Rote.
Fishermen spotted two boats floating near an island in the West Rote district, 500 kilometres north-east of the Australian coast, on Sunday.
“They looked exhausted,” Rote police chief Hidayat said. “One female passenger is pregnant – we took her immediately to the hospital but she is ok now.”
Mr Hidayat said the migrants told him they had been caught by Australian customs on May 26, put in two blue and white boats, and sent back into Indonesian waters.
“The Australians provided them with food, drinks and sufficient fuel to reach Indonesian land,” Mr Hidayat said.
He said the passengers included four women and three toddlers. Of the 65, 54 were from Sri Lanka, 10 from Bangladesh and one from Myanmar.
They had started out from Pelabuhan Ratu in West Java on May 24 and were intercepted by Australian customs two days later.
Mr Hidayat said Indonesian police had arrested four of the six crew members. The captain, Yohanes, ran away. “He’s part of the smuggler network in Jakarta, according to the boat crews,” Mr Hidayat said. There was confusion over the whereabouts of the sixth crew member, with some suggesting he was with Australian customs, although it was unclear what that meant.
West Timor Care Foundation chairman Ferdi Tanoni said the migrants were expected to be transferred on Tuesday to Kupang, West Timor’s largest town and the capital of Nusa Tenggara Timur province.
“According to the chief of immigration, the information they received was that these people wanted to go to Australia to ask for asylum,” Mr Tanoni said.
Although there is an immigration detention centre on Kupang, Mr Tanoni said it was full and the asylum seekers were likely to be accommodated in hotels.
A spokesman for Immigration spokesman Peter Dutton said: “The Australian does not comment on matters associated with on-water operations.”
The Australian navy has repeatedly turned back boats with asylum seekers on board after Prime Minister Tony Abbott came to power in 2013 vowing to “stop the boats”.
The hardline tactic was also initially employed by Malaysia and Indonesia during the recent humanitarian crisis in the Bay of Bengal after boatloads of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants were stranded at sea following a Thai crackdown on people trafficking.
The crackdown led to people smugglers abandoning the boats at sea, leading to deaths and starvation.
Malaysia and Indonesia later agreed to assist the migrants and asylum seekers and provide shelter for up to a year but insisted the international community had to help with their resettlement.