The fishing vessel bore no name, only the number VT838 as it approached Darwin, capital of Australia's Northern Territory. Aboard were 140 ragged men, women, and children -- refugees who said they had lost everything when they fled communist Vietnam after bribing corrupt officials.
Australia, which has adopted a more liberal stand toward "boat people" than many governments in the region (admitting them rather than turning them away), looked as though it would allow the group in.
But things were not quite as they seemed.
Immigration and Ethnic Affairs Minister Ian MacPhee announced that a syndicate aimed at bringing illegal immigrants to Australia from Asia had been uncovered by police and immigration officials investigating the VT838's arrival.
Officials suspected the operation was planned in Hong Kong and based in Thailand. They suspected passengers were ethnic Chinese who had not lived in Vietnam for some years. Initially the passengers told investigators they came directly from Vietnam, hoping to be allowed to settle in Australia.
But sources say suspicions were aroused by the number of fit young men among the supposed refugees. Searches of passengers revealed that some of the boat's passengers carried large sums of money. One man and his wife had $24,000 in US currency.
Mr. MacPhee said the VT838's arrival apparently was the result of a "well-planned syndicate operation to move people illegally into Australia."
Two Hong Kong police officers flew to Australia to assist investigators. Mr. MacPhee said the officers had great experience with refugees and illegal immigration, adding that Hong Kong responded quickly to Australia's appeal for help.
After weeks of investigation, the Australian government announced the VT838's 140 passengers would be deported, except for a small number (exact number not disclosed) who will go on trial. It was found that all the "refugees" paid a syndicate to take them to Australia in the guise of "boat people." They came from Taiwan and were of VietnameseChinese origin--but some had lived in Taiwan for as long as 25 years.
If any leaders of the smuggling syndicate are determined to be among the boat's passengers, a new Australian law could be used against them. The law provides for fines of $100,000 Australian ($115,000 US) or 10 years' imprisonment--or both--for anyone convicted of bringing more than five illegal immigrants to Australia.
The VT838 is the first vessel to spark an investigation following its arrival in Australian waters. Earlier vessels have been accepted; officials believed their passengers were legitimate refugees and they were allowed to settle.
The VT838 arrived in Darwin in early October, a time when Australians were debating whether a good share of the Vietnamese arriving on their shores could more aptly be described as economic rather than political refugees.
The bogus refugee episode will inevitably by used as an argument by antiimmigration groups. But Vietnamese community leaders say that despite isolated episodes of racism, Australians generally treat them well.
Since 1975 Australia has admitted 38,220 Vietnamese, 4,736 Laotians, and 2, 383 Cambodians as refugees. Most came from refugee camps in Asia.