A fishing boat that could contain more than 100 Indian migrants may be heading to New Zealand, Indian police say.
The boat, which is carrying people from New Delhi and the southern state of Tamil Nadu, left Munambam harbour in Kerala on 12 January, two officers involved in the case told Reuters.
An individual from New Delhi arrested in connection with the investigation, Prabhu Dhandapani, told police the boat was heading to New Zealand, according to both officers.
Estimates of the number of people on board vary between 100 and 200 people, including women and children, they said.
Immigration New Zealand (INZ) is warning potential Indian migrants that there's every chance they will drown at sea if they attempt to reach our shores by boat.
While there's never been a mass arrival in New Zealand by boat, INZ assistant general manager Stephen Vaughan said there was no doubt New Zealand was a target for people smugglers and it was a very real possibility it would happen.
Mr Vaughan said he was aware people smugglers continued to express interest in targeting New Zealand and the message to anyone attempting the journey was that it would put lives at risk.
"While reports of these types of ventures are concerning, the message to anyone contemplating such a journey is simple: Any attempt to reach New Zealand will put your life, and the lives of your family members, at great risk. There is every chance you will drown at sea,'' he said.
Arun Janardhanan from the Indian Express newspaper told Morning Report that passengers who failed to make the boat said it was carrying 230 passengers, whereas a former owner of the vessel said the maximum number was about 60.
Police have recovered more than 70 bags left behind by the migrants, as well as around 20 identification documents, officer VG Ravindran said.
"The bags are full of dry goods and clothes, suggesting they were preparing for a long journey," said officer MJ Sojan.
"The people and boat are missing somewhere in the sea. Many Indian agencies including the coast guard are trying to locate the boat."
Mr Janardhanan said those left behind said the middle of the boat and hull all had passengers tightly packed in and authorities believe the luggage was left behind because there was no space for it.
He said Australia's negative attitude towards asylum-seekers and New Zealand's increase in its refugee numbers had been given as an explanation for the destination.
For the migrants to reach New Zealand, they would need to travel more than 11,000km through some of the roughest seas in the world. Cyclones and storms are common in the straits between Indonesia and Australia, the most likely route for the boat.
INZ is constantly working with international partners to monitor and respond to potential mass arrivals.
"New Zealand is a member of the Bali Process that brings participating countries together to work on practical measure to help combat people smuggling, tracking in persons and related transnational crimes in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
"Legislation passed in 2013 ensures New Zealand has measures in place to effectively manage a mass arrival and sends a clear message to potential people smuggling ventures that New Zealand is not a soft touch,'' Mr Vaughan said.
Under the Immigration Act 2009, those who arrive as part of a mass arrival to be detained for up to six months and allows this detention period to be extended for up to 28 days at a time, if a district court judge determines that is necessary.
"Having the ability to detain people being smuggled into New Zealand is vital to give agencies time to establish and confirm identities and assess whether an individual poses a risk to national security or public safety,'' Mr Vaughan said.
- RNZ / Reuters