Swoop thwarts new people-smuggling plot
By MARK BAKER
Tuesday 10 July 2001
Australian and Cambodian officials believe they have broken a conspiracy by Indonesian syndicates to smuggle asylum seekers into Australia through a new pipeline via the southern coast of Cambodia.
In a joint operation involving Australian Federal Police and immigration officers, Cambodian maritime police captured a fishing boat carrying about 250 Afghans and Pakistanis early on Sunday morning just 20 minutes after it sailed from the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville.
Cambodian authorities have arrested 12 Indonesians suspected of being part of a syndicate preparing to exploit Cambodia's lax border controls to open a new people-smuggling route to Australia.
Australian embassy officials said the boat was believed to be heading for the northern coast of Australia across the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea and through the Indonesian archipelago.
The Afghan and Pakistani passengers, who had been flown into Cambodia via Thailand in small groups over the past two months, faced a perilous voyage through the Gulf of Thailand, which is still in its annual typhoon season.
Australian embassy officials said the small timber coastal fishing boat was severely overcrowded and was carrying only two small cooking burners and two bags of rice for the five or six-day voyage to Australia.
"They were crammed in like passengers on a slave ship," said the Australian ambassador to Cambodia, Louise Hand. "They faced serious danger."
The passengers, including nine women and six children aged as young as six months, are believed to have paid between $US5000 and $US10,000 ($A9832-$19,666) for their journey to Australia. [emphasis added]
Ms Hand praised the cooperation of Cambodian authorities in breaking the operation, which involved the first attempt by syndicates to use Cambodia as a transit point to Australia.
"We're overwhelmingly grateful to the Cambodian Government for their prompt response," she said. "If this operation had been successful it would have created a whole new route for people smuggling into Australia.
"For a country still in the early stages of its reconstruction, it is very hard to combat these kind of international criminal operations and it's heartening to see the Cambodian Government responding in this way."
Acting on information supplied by Australian Federal Police and immigration officers, Cambodian authorities first arrested the fishing boat's captain and crew on an island off the coast near Sihanoukville last Wednesday, but they were released after persuading police that they were not acting illegally.
However, the boat was kept under surveillance until it loaded the passengers near Sihanoukville and sailed at 1am on Sunday.
A spokesman for the Cambodian Department of Foreign Affairs, Brigadier-General Yon Chhony, said the passengers had been flown into Phnom Penh's Pochentong Airport in groups of 20 to 30 and billeted at cheap tourist hotels in the capital.
Late on Saturday they were driven south to Sihanoukville in a convoy of small buses and rushed aboard the fishing boat.
Those detained were carrying Afghan, Pakistani and Malaysian passports, some of which are believed to be false.
The Australian embassy is helping Cambodian authorities provide humanitarian assistance to the detainees pending a decision on their future.