AUSTRALIAN police are wasting their time and money chasing Indonesian fishermen who crew boats of asylum seekers instead of the gangs organising people-smuggling rackets, front-line officers say.
Police figures show that since 2008, only 15 organisers of people-smuggling operations have been arrested by Australian police, compared with 546 crew members.
And since 2010-11, the Australian Federal Police's budget to track smugglers has more than halved from $41.1 million to $17.4 million in 2012-13 - making it essential that the limited resources are put to the best use, according to police.
An internal survey of the AFP officers dedicated to chasing people smugglers has found several think enforcement efforts focusing on detaining crew members are misguided and want fishermen caught up in the smuggling rackets spared mandatory detention.
Several officers surveyed in the past fortnight by the Australian Federal Police Association, which represents officers, said diverting first offenders away from detention would only have merit if the crew provided useful information to police about people-smuggling organisers, agreed to have their biometric data collected and accepted immediate deportation.
''While the [Department of Immigration and Citizenship] and the AFP spends its days 'picking the low hanging fruit' the smugglers are laughing all the way to the bank,'' one AFP officer said in the survey.
''Prosecuting Indonesian crew members is a complete waste of resources,'' said another.
The survey sent to 80 union members - part of the 112-strong force dedicated to chasing people smugglers - found most believed some of Australia's $578 million a year of foreign aid to Indonesia should be used to seal Indonesia's own borders. They also favoured offshore refugee processing, either on Nauru or in Malaysia.
''It is time the government listened to the professional practitioners directly dealing with these criminal syndicates,'' said association president Jon Hunt-Sharman.