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By Craig Skehan - SMH

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Port Vila Presse, February 19) - Pacific island countries have become the stepping stones for thousands of Chinese seeking to enter Australia through immigration scams organised by transnational crime syndicates.

The syndicates are at the centre of burgeoning "polycrime" involving extortion, money laundering, illegal gambling, prostitution, and even the plundering of oceans and forests.

Underscoring Canberra's concerns, the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, Mick Keelty, will fly to Beijing for the first time tomorrow for high-level talks on people-smuggling and other criminal activities involving Chinese in the Asia-Pacific region.

Mr Keelty wants to minimise the impact on Australia from crime including gang-related violence, the pushing of new synthetic drugs, credit-card theft and other forms of identity fraud.

Organised crime was now the greatest security threat in the region, said Andrew Hughes, an Australian police officer on secondment as Fiji's police commissioner. "Australia has woken up to that," he said.

The Howard Government is spending $2 billion over five years for deployments of Australian police on Pacific islands, along with programs to develop local investigative skills and judicial systems. But the spectre of organised crime undermining regional stability and development efforts worries Canberra.

Investigations within Pacific nations, backed by intelligence and other logistical support from Australia, are being intensified in a bid to check the rampant corruption that has allowed Chinese syndicates to gain a foothold.

Pay-offs to officials to grant investment approvals, work permits, visas, citizenship certificates and passports have been identified in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji.

Australian officials are also aware that criminals have obtained islands' diplomatic passports by bribing politicians.

"Most of the Chinese on the move are ultimately trying to get to Australia, New Zealand, the US or Canada," said Shaun Evans, law enforcement adviser for the region's peak body, the Pacific Islands Forum.

"They see the island countries as increasing their chances of being able to do so.

"Many of them have succeeded. But it is impossible to know exact numbers because they usually come in as citizens of the countries they have moved to - countries which provide them with statements saying they do not have criminal records."

In Papua New Guinea, which has seen an unprecedented influx of Chinese, the National Intelligence Organisation states (in documents obtained by the Herald) that the way has been left open for "criminals, drug traffickers and terrorists".

One plan - which did not proceed - involved transporting Chinese originally from Fujian province to Australia in shipping containers - a practice that has resulted in deaths elsewhere in the world.

The Australian law and order force deployed in Papua New Guinea since late last year has also been told of joint ventures between Australian criminals and Fujian Chinese in gambling operations.

While large numbers of Chinese with fraudulent documents have been blocked from entering Australia, there has been less success in stopping those with genuine documents obtained under false pretences.

Last month, for example, a minister in the Solomon Islands, Clement Rojumana, was arrested in a joint operation with Australian police over his alleged role in the corrupt granting of citizenship certificates to Chinese.

There are also corruption investigations under way in Fiji, where the new wave of Chinese arrivals has been estimated at about 7000 in the past two years - a figure considered second only to the influx into Papua New Guinea. Many thousands more have flooded other Pacific destinations.

There have been gruesome murders of ethnic Chinese in Pacific countries as a result of gang and business disputes. These include the hammer killing of two Chinese in Vanuatu and the shootings in Fiji of three Hong Kong men over the lucrative export of shark fins, and the dismembering a Chinese woman engaged in prostitution in Fiji.

The discovery of 357 kilograms of heroin in Fiji in 2000, followed by last year's raid on the biggest methamphetamine laboratory yet found in the southern hemisphere, sounded alarm bells in Canberra. More large quantities of heroin and cocaine have been uncovered in island countries since. The drugs were intended primarily for shipment to Australia.

Following linked arrests in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Burma, there are efforts to recover tens of millions of dollars of assets accumulated by Chinese syndicate bosses.

There are reports that more chemicals to make methamphetamines have been shifted into island nations for onward sale in Australia and New Zealand.

Australia has been the driving force behind establishing transnational crime units in Pacific island capitals as well as the Pacific Transnational Crime Co-operation Centre in Suva.

Commissioner Hughes said he welcomed these measures but warned drug runners would become more sophisticated in the way they used Fiji as a transit point for the Australian market.

February 21, 2005

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