“Their destination was Darwin. They wanted to work on farms,” he said.
“They paid $US22,000 each – a lot of money.”
Another source in Dili said the Vietnamese were “victims of people smugglers, they were promised jobs on Australian farms and they were tricked”.
Under the tough turn back policies of the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments, attempts by people smugglers to bring people to Australian shores by boat have almost completely stopped. One boat was turned back in January 2020 and four boats were either intercepted or taken back to their source country in 2019.
A spokesman for the Department of Home Affairs said the government was aware the people smuggling boat had been recently intercepted and thanked the Timor-Leste government.
“This is a strong reminder that the threat of people smuggling endures and that we must maintain our vigilance … under Operation Sovereign Borders [which began in September 2013], over 80 people smuggling ventures have been disrupted by Australia and our regional partners,” the spokesman said.
Rui Maria de Araujo, a former prime minister of Timor-Leste who is also a medical doctor, and who is the spokesman for the taskforce handling the coronavirus response in Timor-Leste, said the 13 people had arrived on Jaco Island on June 12 and had been tested for the virus and then quarantined immediately.
The arrival of the boat, he said, had posed a significant risk to Timor-Leste’s ability to stop the spread of the coronavirus — something it had successfully managed to do so far.
“They started their journey from Kendari, the capital of Sulawesi Tenggara [South-east Sulawesi province, Indonesia]. They started their journey 10 days ago,” he said.
“The health authorities in the municipality of Lautem took all necessary measures and quarantined them there temporarily, on Saturday they were taken by the national team for the prevention and mitigation of COVID-19 and they are now in the capital of Dili. They have done the PCR tests for COVID-19, the preliminary results show negative so immigration authorities are now taking care of due processes according to our immigration laws.”
“They posed quite a big risk. At the moment we have zero new cases and we have no evidence of community transmission.”
Dr Araujo said Timorese authorities were working with the embassies of Indonesia and Vietnam and it was likely that all 13 people would be returned to their home countries, once the quarantine period finished.
Timor-Leste has reported just 24 cases of coronavirus and it has been 52 days since a new case was diagnosed.
The country has largely shut its borders, opening its land border with Indonesia just once a week for goods to be traded. Three flights per week are permitted from Australia but these are humanitarian in nature.
Dr Araujo said Timor-Leste was focused on preventing a second wave of infections and the state of emergency had been extended until June 27.
After that, the country may look to begin lowering the barriers to entry, but only for countries like Australia and New Zealand which have dealt with the pandemic in a similarly successful fashion.
“I’d like to stress our gratitude to the Australian government and people for supporting us through this period, from January to now, to prevent and mitigate COVID-19, the Australian government through the Department of Foreign Affairs have provided significant and substantial assistance to enable us to work properly, also civil society groups and the Menzies School in Darwin.”
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James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.
Lia is Deputy Foreign Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald