Australia said yesterday it might revoke the visas of an alleged people-smuggling kingpin and six of his associates after reports they were granted asylum and continued arranging boat trips.
An investigation by ABC Television claimed an Iraqi-born people-smuggler known as Captain Emad had traveled to Australia from Indonesia on a refugee boat in January 2010.
Arriving under a false name, he was granted asylum within three months and began arranging smuggling operations from the Australian capital, according to the broadcast, which aired on Monday night.
Emad was described as the “head of the smugglers, the head of the snake” by an informant who linked him to a powerful Indonesian ring behind two ill-fated boats which sank before reaching Australia, killing almost 150 people.
He was sent as part of a plan to expand the ring’s operations in Australia, along with “at least” another six agents on board his ship who were also granted refugee status, the program said.
The wife of one agent was also reported to be working within the government’s immigration department.
Opposition lawmakers condemned the revelations as a “catastrophic” failing by Australia’s intelligence agencies and an “extraordinary indictment” on the government’s border-security capabilities.
Tantowi Yahya, a member of the Indonesian parliament’s foreign affairs commission, expressed disappointment, describing people-smuggling as a serious crime whose victims were often “young, innocent children.”
“It’s ironic that Australia asks Indonesia repeatedly for help to eliminate people-smuggling networks and yet grants asylum to the perpetrators,” Yahya said.
“Australia should revoke their asylum status and visas. That’s the only right way,” he added.
Though they come in relatively small numbers by global standards, the issue of asylum-seekers is a political hot potato that dominated Australian national elections in 2010 because of a record number of boat arrivals from Asia.
A boat carrying 49 people was intercepted off northern Australia yesterday, taking to 50 the number of vessels to arrive this year, carrying almost 3,800 asylum-seekers in total — on track to rival the 2010 record of 6,555.
Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Australian police had “very considerable” investigations into smuggling activities locally and abroad and denied the allegations undermined confidence in the system.
Fourteen people-smugglers had already been caught in Australia and charged, Bowen said, but would neither confirm nor deny that Emad or his colleagues were under investigation prior to the program being aired.
“The Australian Federal Police takes these allegations seriously and will examine all information [including] information that was publicly aired last night,” he told Sky News.
Bowen said “all steps” would be taken to ascertain whether a smuggler’s wife was working in his department and that officials would examine whether the visas of any other person needed reviewing.
Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs Bob Carr said the case showed the importance of a regional solution, such as Canberra’s so-called “people swap” with Kuala Lumpur.
That deal, under which Australia would accept 4,000 registered refugees from Malaysia in exchange for 800 boat people held in Australia, was struck down by the Australian High Court.