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Welcome address - Transnational crime today

Senator, The Hon Amanda Vanstone
Minister for Justice and Customs

Presented at: 
Transnational Crime
Rydges Lakeside, Canberra
9-10 March 2000

A decade ago the shadow of the Cold War was gradually fading.

Ironically, the world we live in is in many way now less safe than it was then.

Transnational crime is on the move, spreading like a rampant virus.

The information revolution, the globalisation of business, and rapid advances in science and technology give organised crime new opportunities, and the capacity to exploit them across borders.

Today we face crime threats barely foreseeable a decade ago.

  • Internet child pornography
  • Russian organised crime
  • Industrial espionage.

Technology also facilitates traditional forms of transnational crime such as money laundering and trafficking in drugs and firearms.

  • It is estimated that money laundering accounts for something like 2 to 5 per cent of the world's gross domestic produce. That is almost $600 billion (US) even at the lowest end.
  • I recently destroyed 615 kilograms of cocaine seized by Customs and AFP agents during two separate operations in February. The burn included the record 500 kilograms of cocaine seized at Patonga north of Sydney.
  • Hauls of illicit drugs are now measured fractions of tons, not the grams in the luggage of couriers.

People smuggling

People smuggling and trafficking in human beings is possibly currently the fastest growing of these new transnational crimes.

The number of illegal immigrants arriving in Australia has grown from 923 in 1998-1999 to 3,828 so far in 1999-2000.

We need to understand that people smuggling - like other crime - is big business.

People are regarded by these criminal organisations as simply another commodity from which significant and illegal profits can be made.

In this filthy business it is a human cargo that is 'harvested', 'warehoused', 'packaged', 'bulk carried', and 'distributed' around the world.

Like other new industries, people smuggling is benefiting from developments in technology, for example communications and information technology.

  • Maritime people-smugglers now have access to highly sophisticated navigation equipment.
  • Illegal immigrants and service providers to the industry have access to state of the art, digitally produced false documentation.

Impacts of people smuggling

People smuggling directly disrupts our established migration practices.

More importantly, people smuggling often involves horrific mistreatment of abuses of vulnerable people by criminal syndicates.

In July 1999, a vessel carrying 20 Sri Lankans sank about 40 nautical miles north west of Christmas Island.

Information obtained from the five survivors indicated that the people were seeking to enter Australia illegally. They had paid between US$4,000-6,000 each to leave Sri Lanka.

The group had flown to Indonesia where they were taken to an Indonesian fishing village and boarded an Indonesian fishing boat with an Indonesian crew. They were accompanied by another boat crewed by Indonesians.

When they were in sight of the lights on Christmas Island, the crew pointed them in the direction of the Island and departed on the second boat.

About three hours later, the motor of the boat carrying the twenty Sri Lankans stopped and could not be restarted. They drifted away from the Island and the following morning the boat slowly began to sink. A number of the Sri Lankans left the boat and were saved by an Australian yacht.

The remaining persons on board were never sighted again. No debris was sighted. The other suspected illegal immigrants presumably drowned.

Experience in the US and Canada has demonstrated the use of shipping containers by people smuggling syndicates. This practice has already resulted in a number of deaths.

For example, when a container was discovered in Seattle earlier this year three occupants were found to have died during the voyage.

Because of the limited clearance between containers and the position of the container within the stack, the remaining occupants were unable to dispose of the bodies and completed the journey locked in the container with the decomposing remains.

Overseas experience also suggests that the charging of large fees for people smuggling services may result in a virtual "debt bondage" between the migrant and the organisers.

The International Organisation for Migration notes cases of undocumented Chinese immigrants in the United States who work in restaurants linked to organised crime and spend their nights locked up in prison-like dormitories, after handing over all of their day's earnings.

There is also evidence from the United States that individuals involved in smuggling may use extreme violence as a form of control to secure payment from the migrants and their families.

A study of life for illegal migrants inside "safe-houses" in New York found that the migrants were punished and tortured by debt collectors to force their captives' families and relatives to deliver the smuggling fees as soon as possible.

The bottom line is that we should not be concerned about people smuggling only because of its effect on us, but because it is an organised internationalised criminal racket that exploits and degrades the vulnerable.

Link to other forms of transnational crime

We know that people smuggling is connected to other forms of transnational crime.

Intelligence obtained by the AFP's overseas liaison network suggests that the criminal organisations involved in the commercial shipment of narcotics to Australia are also probably responsible for the transportation of unlawful arrivals to our shores.

Sometimes, the circumstances that lead large numbers of people to fall prey to people smugglers are in themselves the result of rampant, internationalised crime.

To the extent that a government in another part of the world is the target of insurgency fuelled by illegal traffic in firearms, or becomes corrupted by drug dealers, it is much less capable of providing a decent life for its citizens. These citizens in turn may try to flee elsewhere, with predictable consequences for other nations.

Not long ago in Albania, a massive fraud resulted in a significant number of Albanians losing their life savings.

This in turn precipitated the collapse of the government, and a substantial exodus of Albanians seeking refuge in neighbouring Italy, with consequent strains on Italian law enforcement, emergency services, and immigration resources.

Tragically, crime has the habit of feeding on itself.

Countries need not only be the direct victims of internationalised crime, for example as a recipient of large numbers of illegal immigrants or by being the target of drug traffickers. Countries can also be used as a proving ground for criminal activities abroad.

Perhaps the most dramatic recent example in Australia involved the Aum Sect, which purchased a sheep station in a remote part of Western Australia and used it to test gases for use in their attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.


The cold war divided the world into blocks, and hampered trade and communications. This is no longer the case. We live in an open world, with increasing movements of people, goods and information.

Combating transnational crime can't be done by adhering to jurisdictional boundaries. Criminals and crime ignore these man made limitations.

Law enforcement around the world must link together to form a global net.

International coalitions and cooperative efforts are key to defeating organised crime. That's how we can weave the net.

Australia will be represented next month in Vienna at the 10th United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and The Treatment of Offenders.

Among the issues to be addressed at that Congress will be the a convention on Transnational Organised Crime, which includes a protocol on people smuggling.

Australia is contributing to this convention, and we are pleased of our achievements in combating transnational crime.

Unless people smuggling is recognised as a crime in all countries, we cannot work together. Extraditions become difficult, and Countries can be used as safe havens.

Of course people smuggling is not the only focus of our international efforts.

We are particularly concerned to develop effective counter-money laundering arrangements. As Commissioner Palmer has remarked, while the big criminals are virtually never close to the drugs, they are never too far away from the money.

In addition:

  • In March 1997 the Government amended the Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act 1987 to provide for "passive" application of the Act to all foreign countries, rather than requiring the Act to be specifically applied to particular countries by regulation. This enables assistance to be provided and requested much more expeditiously than was previously the case.
  • The posting of law enforcement personnel overseas can facilitate the development of informal networks which can help expedite response to the various requests which may arise from time to time. The AFP has a large and growing network of liaison offices around the world.
  • Governments must also play a role in building law enforcement capacity in places which are transit countries or havens for people smugglers and other organised criminals. While crime is universal, some countries are better at exporting it than others.
  • Resources for law enforcement are scarce in many source and transit countries, and victims of trafficking are unwilling to assist prosecutors. There is clearly a need for regional and international cooperation.
  • Australia is already 'on the front foot' in relation to the detection and apprehension of people smugglers.
    • Last year the Prime Minister's Coastal Surveillance Task Force provided significant resources to boost Coastwatch's coverage of the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone and offshore territories. Initial results are very encouraging.
    • The National Surveillance Centre is closely engaged in developing policies that facilitate strong interdepartmental cooperation.


    Transnational crime is constantly adapting itself in response to new developments in technology and law enforcement.

    I am confident that we will be able to meet the challenges of transnational crime in the future.

    The Australian Institute of Criminology is playing its role in through the Global Program Against Trafficking in Human Beings, launched by the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention in March 1999.

    The Institute has established a website devoted to people smuggling and trafficking.

    The Institute's research will play an important role in the Asian Regional Initiative Against Trafficking in Women and Children. This initiative will build on the good work that Australia is already doing, through initiatives such as the slavery and sexual servitude laws, and the laws against child sex tourism.

    I am also pleased to release the Institute's paper "Human smuggling and trafficking : an overview of the response at the federal level". I hope that the paper will provide a useful basis for your discussions in this conference.