Canberra said Tuesday it may 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’s Four Corners program 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 fake name, he was granted asylum within three months and began arranging smuggling operations from the Australian capital, according to the broadcast, which aired 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.
Though they come in relatively small numbers by global standards, the issue of asylum-seekers is a political hot potato in Australia that dominated national elections in 2010 due to a record number of boat arrivals from Asia.
A total of 49 boats carrying 3,749 asylum seekers have arrived so far this year, causing Australia’s refugee detention budget to spiral to more than Aus$1 billion ($1 billion).
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Australian police had “very considerable” investigations into smuggling activities both 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 — information that was publicly aired last night, information that they would have through other sources in relation to all individuals,” he told Sky News.
Bowen added that he would ask that “all steps be taken to investigate” the claim that a smuggler’s wife was working in his department.
“I’ve also asked my department to examine whether there’s a case to answer for the permanent residency or the protection visas for any (other) individual to be reviewed on the basis of new information which is brought to light,” he said.