The Australian government has deployed another of its big orange lifeboats to return a group of asylum seekers to Indonesia — the sixth confirmed turn-back since the policy was enacted in December.
Sources in Cisarua, where many asylum seekers gather before boarding boats, believe the 34 people onboard had left almost two weeks ago, on January 27.
That timing suggest the people have been in the custody of Australian authorities for a perhaps a week before embarking on the "unsinkable" vessel.
Reports emerged in recent days of Australian vessels Triton and Bathurst sailing off the coast of Christmas Island, with an orange boat in tow.
Indonesian media reported the boat was carrying 34 people and had landed on the west coast of Pangandaran bay, on Java's southern coast at about 8.30pm local time on Wednesday night.
The area is a popular swimming spot for local tourists.
Local authorities were quoted saying that as many as 21 people from Iran – two of whom are toddlers aged about 18 months – five from Bangladesh, six from Nepal and two people from Pakistan.
All were now temporarily housed in police or naval facilities.
When contacted for comment on Thursday afternoon, Australian Minister Scott Morrison said: ''In accordance with the Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Task Force policy regarding public release of information on operational matters, the government has no response on the issues raised''.
It's unclear why Australian authorities are keeping asylum seekers for significant periods at sea before turning them back, or embarking them on the orange boats.
One group returned in mid-January told Fairfax Media they had spent days "sailing around the ocean".
People on a number of the six boats returned also said they were tricked by sailors telling them they were being taken to Darwin or Christmas Island, but eventually finding themselves back in Indonesia.
The navy has reportedly bought 11 of the disposable life boats, two of which have now turned up in Indonesia after turn-back operations.
In less than two months, Tony Abbott's Liberal government has turned back, towed back, or sent back to Indonesia in lifeboats more boats than his mentor John Howard managed in more than two years between October 2001 and November 2003.
However, the boats appearing during the Howard era were bigger, and 614 people were returned by the Australian navy in his time.
Mr Abbott has so far returned just 249 people.
1. December 8: Set out from Kandaria, South Sulawesi
47 people aboard
Boat towed while people travelled on navy ship
December 19: Returned to Rote Island
Alleged details: People say they were returned to their boat 15 kilometres from shore
2. December 22 (approximate): Set out from West Java
December 23: Intercepted near Christmas Island
Boat escorted back by two navy vessels
December 27: Returned to southern coast of Java
Alleged details: Two people jumped overboard and were rescued by navy; escorted by two navy boats within sight of Indonesian land.
3. December 21 (approximate): Set out from Makassar, South Sulawesi
January 1: Landed near Darwin when people overboard, called for helpBoat towed by (HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Glenelg) five days, while people travelled on navy ship
January 6: Landed Rote Island
Alleged details: Boat left adrift near shore, asylum seekers rescued by locals. Allegations that asylum seekers were hit and kicked by navy personnel and forced to grab hot pipes,burning their hands. (Allegations denied).
4. Late December: Set out from Medan, North Sumatra
Early January: Intercepted near Christmas Island
Boat escorted back by navy vessels
January 8: Landed, southern Java
Alleged details: Local police report asylum seekers saying navy fired warning shots during turn-back (allegation denied). The boat did not make it to shore. Asylum seekers were swimming and rescued by local villagers.
5. January 5: Set out from an island off Java
January 8 (approximate): Intercepted mid-ocean; asylum seekers scuttle the boat; rescued by Royal Australian Navy vessels. Taken to near Christmas Island.
January 9 (approximate): Transferred to Customs vessel.
January 15: Placed in “life boat” and ordered to continue to Indonesia. Arrive south coast of Java.
Alleged details: Accompanying Australian vessels sailed within sight of Indonesia.
6. January 27: Set out from Java
Intercepted near Christmas Island
February 5: Boat returns to southern Java coast.
Alleged details: Reports of asylum seekers on Australian ships Triton and HMAS Bathurst off the coast of Christmas Island, with an orange boat in tow, a week before the return.
The story Australia turns back sixth boat carrying asylum seekers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.