SYDNEY – Five men from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been arrested and accused of facilitating the passage of up to 132 asylum-seekers boats in Australia’s largest-ever people-smuggling sting, police said Thursday.
The men — an Iranian, 21, a Pakistani national, 46, and three Afghans aged 40, 34 and 33 — were detained in a major nationwide operation culminating 12 months of work and seven separate probes into 132 voyages.
Hundreds of asylum-seekers have died making the perilous voyage to Australia in recent years on rickety, overloaded boats, mostly from Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
Four of the men, described by police as “key” syndicate members, came to Australia on smuggling boats themselves between May 2012 and July 2013.
The ring was allegedly active in the recruitment of passengers and the collection and transfer of money.
Three are in immigration detention, and stand accused of orchestrating activities from Indonesia prior to their arrival.
One of the men, Barkat Ali Wahide from Afghanistan, appeared briefly in court in Perth, telling a magistrate he had been in immigration custody for 17 months.
He was charged with two counts of smuggling — each charge relating to two passengers — and returned to detention until his next hearing in September.
The other men were also expected to appear in court later Thursday.
Police said it was Australia’s largest ever people-smuggling strike, relying on evidence from more than 200 witnesses.
Assistant Commissioner Steve Lancaster promised further arrests, with investigations ongoing both domestically and abroad.
“From a deterrence perspective, this is not the end,” Lancaster told reporters.
“It is likely that if you are a significant people-smuggling organizer that you are likely to be known by us. I guarantee you there will be further arrests made.”
According to The Australian newspaper, the group charged asylum-seekers between Aus$4,000-$10,000 (US$3,600-$9,000) for their voyage, promising private cabins, and about one-third of their passengers had provided formal statements to police.
The Australian said there were more than 20 other domestic people-smuggling probes under way.
The five men have been charged with people-smuggling as well as providing false information under the Migration Act. They face a maximum 10 years in prison or a Aus$110,000 fine.
There were 196 boat arrivals in the first six months of this year, and 278 throughout 2012.
Lancaster said he expected trafficking to be affected, with 26 people-smugglers in Australia now charged.
“From a disruption perspective, today’s actions will have an impact,” he said.
“We have information and intelligence to say that people are organising and assisting in Australia. That can be shown by the arrests in the previous years,” added Lancaster.
“It is also clear that there are significant people-smuggling operations in Indonesia and other countries.”
People-smuggling is a hot-button issue in Australia, particularly in the lead-up to September 7 national polls, and both sides of the political divide have pledged tough policies to stem the flow of asylum-seekers, although it is relatively small by global standards.
The ruling Labor party has signed a deal promising poor neighbours Papua New Guinea and Nauru a significant boost in foreign aid in exchange for them accepting boat arrivals for permanent resettlement.
The party says the deterrent policy is working, with intelligence reports from major transit country Indonesia suggesting passengers were demanding their money back from people-smugglers and the tide of boats slowing in recent weeks.
The conservative opposition has proposed buying up unseaworthy Indonesian fishing boats to keep them out of the hands of people-smugglers and has vowed a crackdown on arrivals.
Under its plan, unauthorised maritime arrivals would be placed on temporary three-year visas, banned from permanent residency, family reunion or other basic rights and forced onto a welfare-for-work program.