CANBERRA, Australia (AP) -- People smugglers are marketing New Zealand as a back door into Australia, an Australian government minister said Monday after Malaysian authorities intercepted a boat carrying Sri Lankan asylum seekers.
More than 130 Sri Lankans believed to be heading for Australia and New Zealand were intercepted when Malaysian authorities halted the modified tanker on Tuesday off the coast of southern Johor state.
Malaysian police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said in a statement the group included 98 men, 24 women, four boys and five girls.
Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton credited those who stopped the boat for doing great work in disrupting "a very sophisticated operation" to bring people to either New Zealand or Australia.
"Some people it seems have been told different stories about their destination," Dutton said. "New Zealand is now being marketed as a definite destination."
Because of Australia's close ties with New Zealand, travelers who arrive in New Zealand immediately qualify for an Australian visa.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the focus needed to be on preventing the boats from ever leaving port.
"Unscrupulous people with no integrity will promote either destination for their financial benefit, without necessarily those victims involved having any sense of the reality of either country," Ardern said.
Australia has stopped asylum seekers from attempting to reach its shores aboard rickety fishing boats from Indonesian ports by refusing to allow boat arrivals to ever resettle on the Australian mainland.
Australia pays the poor Pacific nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to keep asylum seekers from Asia, the Middle East and Africa in immigration camps indefinitely.
New Zealand doesn't have similar policies but Ardern said that didn't make the country an easy target.
"Our laws around people smugglers are strict, they carry a heavy penalty, and those individuals would be pursued if they ever were in New Zealand waters," she said.
The boats used to arrive on Australian shores at a rate of more than one a day, but no boat smuggling people has arrived in Australia in almost four years.
But Dutton said 14,000 asylum seekers were waiting in Indonesia for a chance to come to Australia.
"People realize that New Zealand is a backdoor way into Australia, that New Zealand is a comparable society to Australia," Dutton said. "It has a similar welfare system, similar health, education offerings, housing, etc. --- it is marketed in the same way as Australia is as a positive destination."
Air Vice-Marshal Stephen Osborne, commander of Australia's Operation Sovereign Borders which blocks or turns back asylum-seeker boats that head toward Australia, described the ship stopped by the Malaysians as a "much larger vessel than we've seen for some time" and the smuggling operation as "far more complex and sophisticated" than previous attempts.
Malaysian police also raided a fishing boat used to transport the migrants to the vessel and detained three Indonesians and four Malaysians on board, Fuzi said. Another five Malaysians were arrested for suspected involvement in the smuggling syndicate.
A total of 127 Sri Lankans will be charged for entering Malaysia illegally while nine Malaysians, four Indonesians and four Sri Lankans will be investigated for human smuggling, Fuzi added.