Authorities taking part in Australia’s largest ever crackdown on people smugglers arrested five men on Thursday from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, picking them up in four different states.
Australian Federal Police agents raided immigration detention centres and homes before dawn in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and New South Wales, Police Assistant Commissioner Steve Lancaster said.
Police were targeting the kingpins of people smuggling syndicates involved in the planning or facilitation of up to 132 boats bringing asylum seekers to Australia in the past two years, he said.
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.
Many of the asylum seekers come from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Myanmar. They sometimes pay smugglers US$10,000 each for their passage.
Lancaster said police would make more arrests in the operation.
“To those who have not been picked up in the first scoop today, it does not mean you should sleep well tonight,” Lancaster told reporters. “I guarantee there will be further arrests made ... this is not the end.”
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 centre.
A 21-year-old Iranian national, a 36-year-old Pakistani national and another two Afghan nationals, aged 40 and 33, were also due to appear in courts across Australia. They each face a prison sentence of up to 10 years if convicted of people smuggling.
Lancaster said the operation would put a major hole in people smuggling networks that bring dozens of boats to Australia every month.
He said three of the five suspects were arrested in immigration detention centres, where asylum seekers are held until refugee claims are assessed and where unsuccessful claimants await deportation.