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Was people smuggling boat, intercepted with 130 Sri Lankan refugees, really heading to NZ?

Australia Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has backed the importance of border security after a people-smuggling syndicate with links to Australia was smashed by Malaysian police.

More than 130 Sri Lankans were said to be heading for Australia and New Zealand, and were intercepted when authorities halted a modified tanker on Tuesday off the coast of southern Johor state, national police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said in a statement.

He said the immigrants included 98 men, 24 women, four boys and five girls.

Mr Dutton said it was clear the threat of people smuggling syndicates remained and it was important to keep Australia's borders strong.

However, Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Ian Rintoul, speaking to Radio New Zealand this morning, voiced doubts that the ship could have made it to New Zealand.

"I think, on the face of it, there's no possibility that it could be thinking of attempting to go to New Zealand," Mr Rintoul told RNZ.

"It's a fairly ambitious kind of operation and it's unlikely, given the level of survellence between Indonesia and Australia, that a boat that size would make it.

Sri Lankan migrants arrested by authorities after being found aboard a tanker. Source: Royal Malaysia Police

"It's not really a highly efficient operation that we're talking about, I don't think we're looking at a very well equipped international syndicate."

Police also raided a fishing boat used to transport the migrants to the vessel and detained three Indonesians and four Malaysians on board, Mr Dutton said.

Another five Malaysians were nabbed for suspected involving 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.