Malaysia busts alleged traffickers who crammed 131 people onto tanker

Trafficking operation operating since mid-2017

By BEN WESTCOTT AND MARC LOURDES, CNN
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(CNN) - Australia says Malaysia's interception of a "sophisticated" people smuggling operation shows its tough policies on human traffickers are justified and working.

Malaysia's National Police Chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun announced in a statement on Saturday that authorities had stopped a "modified" tanker on May 1 that was on its way to international waters.

On board were 131 Sri Lankans including 98 men, 24 women, four boys and five girls, who were believed to be heading toward Australia and New Zealand.

Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said they had been working closely with Malaysian authorities to stop people smuggling operations.

"It underscores the fact that this is a significant issue for our country, for New Zealand and for other countries in the region," he said at a press conference on Monday morning,

Malaysian Police Chief Harun said the trafficking operation had been operating since mid-2017 and stretched from Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Authorities also stopped a 'Class A' fishing vessel that had been used to ferry the migrants from land to the tanker.

Harun said 127 of the Sri Lankans would be charged with entering Malaysia illegally, while another nine Malaysians, three Indonesians and four Sri Lankans would be investigated for people smuggling.

New Zealand Immigration Minister Lee-Galloway said in a statement the successful operation sent a "very clear signal" to people smugglers.

"This sort of venture would put lives at extreme risk in the most vast and treacherous ocean in the world ... Exploitation of individuals and families by people smugglers is repugnant and will not be tolerated, he said.

Australian Air Vice-Marshal Stephen Osborne said the operation showed how people smugglers were continuing to look for ways "to test Australia's borders."

"This was a much larger vessel than we've seen for some time, it was certainly a larger number of people involved, it certainly to have also been much more complex and sophisticated," he said.

Border protection regime

The Australian government has a system of controversial border protection policies, including the turning around boats of asylum seekers headed towards the country's territory and refusing to settle any refugees who arrive by sea.

As of March 2018, 269 people including refugees were being held on the small Pacific Island of Nauru, including 22 children, as part of Australia's immigration program.

A second immigration detention facility on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island was closed amid protests in November 2017, and the hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers at the facility moved to another location.

The Australian Home Affairs office subsequently stopped providing official statistics on how many people are being held on Papua New Guinea.

Dutton said on Monday about 249 people from Australia's detention centers on Manus Island and Nauru to the United States under the refugee deal struck with the Obama administration.

Senator Nick McKim, immigration spokesman for the Australian Greens, an opposition party, said the announcement of the tanker's interception showed there was a "global problem" of displaced people which needed wide-reaching solutions.

"It shows (Australia's) offshore detention and turning boats around at sea have been for nothing, other than cruelty for cruelty's sake," he said in a statement. "We need to invest in regional solutions, and stop punishing desperate people."

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