The 51 Rohingya, 24 Iranians and seven Somalis had been heading from Sulawesi island, in the east of the country, to East Nusa Tenggara, one of the closest Indonesian provinces to Australia, he said.
An increasing number of Rohingya, described by the UN as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, have been arriving in Indonesia as they flee Buddhist-Muslim sectarian violence which erupted in their home state of Rakhine in the country’s west last year.
“They were heading to Australia, as usual,” immigration official Muhammad Bakri said.
Although Australia has received a steady influx of boatpeople seeking asylum via Indonesian waters in recent years, no Rohingya vessels are believed to have made it to Australian shores. Rohingya often wishfully cite Australia as a favoured destination, however.
The boat left from southwest Sulawesi but ran aground nearby and they were picked up by a naval patrol, the official said.
The migrants, including several children, were taken to the nearby city of Makassar, where they were being registered and questioned by immigration officials.
Bakri said the Rohingya would be kept apart from other asylum seekers following violence at a detention centre last week in which Rohingya killed eight Buddhists from Myanmar.
“We fear something bad might happen, especially after the recent violence,” he said.
Most of the asylum seekers were in good health, although two children were suffering from a skin rash and had being taken to hospital.
The immigration detention centre was overcrowded so extra accommodation would be rented to house the asylum seekers while their cases were being processed, Bakri said.
Indonesia is a transit hub for asylum seekers from many countries, including Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many pay people-smugglers for passage to Australia.
Australia last year dealt with a record 17,202 asylum seekers arriving by sea and has seen more than 3,000 this year. Hundreds have died trying to make the crossing in recent years.
Earlier yesterday, Indonesian police said they had found a boatload of 76 hungry, dehydrated Rohingya asylum seekers in the waters off Aceh province.
Local police chief Djadjuli said fishermen towed the boat to shore on Monday.
The group – all Rohingya – included five women and five children, Djadjuli said.
One migrant told investigators they were fleeing Myanmar, hoping for asylum in Australia.