Federal Police arrest pair who called them for help while allegedly on people-smuggling mission
Australian Federal Police and their Indonesian counterparts say they have solved a double mystery behind a bizarre botched people-smuggling venture that unravelled across both countries earlier this year.
- The two men came to police attention after getting caught in floodwaters in the NT
- It is alleged they were meant to meet six men being smuggled into Australia by boat
- Police say the arrivals would have been forced into “debt bondage”, a form of slavery
The luckless mission ended with a boat carrying six Chinese men being intercepted midway to Australia, and a bogged car allegedly carrying their “shore party” rescued from Northern Territory floodwaters in January.
Two men suspected to form the shore party for the boat that never came have been under intense surveillance for almost six months, and are now charged with being part of an international people-smuggling network.
The AFP alleges that if the venture had succeeded, the pair would have forced their six passengers, from China’s Jiangsu province, into a form of slavery called “debt bondage” after arrival in Australia.
Instead, a 30-year-old man from at Birmingham Gardens, near Newcastle, and a 31-year-old man from Mareeba in Queensland, have been arrested and charged with people-smuggling offences.
The ABC reported the first mystery of the operation in late January, when an Indonesian fishing boat with the “Jiangsu Six” onboard was halted at the remote Ashmore Reef atoll in Australia’s northern waters by the Border Force and turned-back towards Indonesia.
Once inside Indonesian territorial waters, their fuel ran out and they were duly picked-up by Indonesian police off Rote Island in the East Nusa Tenggara province.
What wasn’t known at the time was the connection between that boat intercept under the secretive Operation Sovereign Borders and the second mystery of an unusual “rescue” of two hapless men in the rain-soaked Northern Territory, at the height of the tropical wet season.
At the same time the “Jiangsu six” were motoring on their wooden fishing boat towards Ashmore Reef on January 24 this year, Northern Territory Police received a call for help from two men stuck in their car, in a flooded water crossing in a remote part of the Territory.
After rescuing the pair, Police found part of the explanation for why they were there implausible enough to slap surveillance on the men, alleged to be the 30-year-old from Newcastle and the 31-year-old from Mareeba.
The stranded men’s claim they were on a camping trip simply didn’t stack up with the fact Northern Territory Police could find only “a carton of water and one small bag between them”, according to the case now compiled against them by the AFP.
Rescued from their watery isolation, the pair’s movements and communications were monitored for months until raids were launched on their homes in the Hunter and Far North Queensland regions yesterday.
Investigators seized visa applications on a computer hard drive, mobile phones, computers, and other documents.
Both men have been charged with facilitating “the entry of a group of five or more unlawful non-citizens into Australia, contrary to section 233C of the Migration Act 1958”, according to an AFP statement.
Men were sold a form of modern slavery
The bungled nature of the operation, mired in mud and maritime interception, is only part of the case’s intrigue; police allege the men on board the boat had been sold a form of modern slavery.
The AFP’s case against the two Australians centres on the claim that in return for their would-be passage to Australia, the six men would “have to undertake work for a year without income in debt bondage” to repay the smuggling syndicate.
In reality, the six men ended up in the hands of Indonesian immigration officials, after they were cleared of coronavirus risks and taken onshore in the eastern provincial capital, Kupang.
The police charge suggests that, despite its ham-fisted execution, the syndicate marketed an alluring sales pitch to Chinese nationals, featuring the “right” to work in Australia with “visas” and cheap transportation.
“We know that people smugglers operate across borders and regions in an attempt to promise something they cannot deliver — illegal access to Australia,” AFP Commander Crime Coordination Paul Osborne said in a statement.
Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB Commander Craig Furini has highlighted the strong cooperation between international partners, investigators and domestic police that brought the onshore and offshore strands of the investigation together.
“Since the implementation of OSB in 2013, Australia has returned 873 people from 38 people-smuggling ventures to their country of origin or departure,” Major General Furini said.
The 30-year-old from Birmingham Gardens has already appeared in Newcastle Local court and was remanded in custody for his next appearance in September.
The Mareeba man is being held in custody until a scheduled appearance at Mareeba Court later today.