In Australia’s largest ever crackdown on people smugglers, authorities have arrested five men from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, picking them up in four different states.
The men were accused of facilitating up to 132 boats bringing asylum seekers to Australia in the past two years, police said Thursday.
Police said it was Australia’s largest ever anti-people-smuggling operation, 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 organiser that you are likely to be known by us. I guarantee you there will be further arrests made.”
The men , a 21-year-old Iranian, a 46-year-old Pakistani national, and three Afghans aged 40, 34 and 33, were detained in the 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.
Defendants were ‘key figures’
Four of the men, described by police as “key” syndicate members, themselves came to Australia on smuggling boats 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.
Within hours of the arrests, the first of the accused appeared in court. Afghan asylum seeker Barkat Ali Wahide, 31, was charged in the Perth Magistrates Court in Western Australia with people-smuggling between January and May last year. He did not enter a plea and was returned to an immigration detention center.
The other men were also expected to appear in court later Thursday. They each face a prison sentence of up to 10 years if convicted of people smuggling.
Many of the asylum seekers come from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Myanmar. They pay smugglers as much as $10,000 each for their passage.
According to The Australian newspaper, the group charged asylum-seekers between $3,600 and $9,000 for their voyage, promising private cabins, and about one-third of their passengers had provided formal statements to police.
There were 196 boat arrivals in the first six months of this year, and 278 throughout 2012.
Assistant Commissioner Lancaster said he expected trafficking to be affected, with 26 people-smugglers in Australia now charged.
“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.”
Escalating numbers of asylum seekers paying people smugglers to bring them to Australia from ports in Indonesia and Malaysia in rickety, overcrowded fishing boats has become as major political issue ahead of Australian elections next week.