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 on Thursday.
The men – an Iranian, 21, a Pakistan national, 46, and three Afghans aged 40, 34 and 33 – were detained in a major nation-wide operation bringing together 12 months of work and seven separate probes into 132 voyages.
Four of the men, described by police as "key" syndicate members, came to Australia on smuggling boats themselves between May 2012 and July 2013.
Three are in immigration detention, and stand accused of orchestrating activities from Indonesia prior to their arrival.
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, warning other smugglers they ought not "sleep well tonight" 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 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 A$110,000 (US$99,000) fine.
There were 196 boat arrivals in the first six months of this year, and 278 across 2012.
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, which is relatively small by global standards.
The ruling Labor party has signed a deal promising impoverished Papua New Guinea and Nauru a significant boost in foreign aid in exchange for them accepting boat arrivals for permanent resettlement.
The conservative opposition proposes buying 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 programme.-- AFP