A modified tanker carrying illegal migrants headed for New Zealand and Australia as part of a human trafficking operation has been intercepted by Malaysian police.

The tanker, which has the name Etra painted on the side, was reportedly carrying 131 Sri Lankans - 98 men, 24 women, four boys and five girls.

Five Malaysians believed to be linked to the syndicate were arrested, according to Singapore-based Channel News Asia.

Seven others, three Indonesians and four Malaysians, who were on board a fishing boat used to transport the migrants to the rusty tanker were also arrested following a raid.

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The rusty tanker with name Etra painted in its side was crammed with illegal migrants. (Photo: Royal Malaysia Police)
The rusty tanker with name Etra painted in its side was crammed with illegal migrants. (Photo: Royal Malaysia Police)

"With these arrests, the Royal Malaysia Police has successfully foiled a large and cunning human smuggling syndicate," police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said.

"This syndicate has been operating since mid-2017 and has international connections across Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Malaysia."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said people smuggling and human trafficking was an "increasing concern" regionally and at home.

"Continuing conflicts, political oppression and economic factors have led to a dramatic increase in irregular migration regionally and around the world," the ministry said.

On the tanker were 98 men, 24 women and nine children (Photo: Royal Malaysia Police)
On the tanker were 98 men, 24 women and nine children (Photo: Royal Malaysia Police)