Blue crime’s toll in the Pacific

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Serious offences are taking place on, in, or across the Pacific maritime domain that put at risk the political stability and economic interests of Pacific island states.

Blue crime ranges from piracy, illicit trafficking of people, smuggling narcotics, wildlife and arms by sea to environmental crimes such as illegal fishing and pollution and waste dumping.

The cost of such crime is not inconsequential. The estimated cost alone of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing within the western and central Pacific is more than $US616m ($870.5m) per year.

There has been a dramatic expansion in the number of boats carrying cocaine and methamphetamine from Latin America intended for Australia. The pandemic has created new opportunities for criminals: economic suffering in coastal and fishing communities can push people to turn to blue crime such as smuggling.

There’s illegal entry of people into the Pacific from Asia by fishing vessels or fisheries support vessels. Yachts often make illegal calls to outer islands and are involved in smuggling of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. Human trafficking is now a concern in the region.

Such crimes have different expressions across the Pacific Islands and affect human lives and economic interests in different ways, ranging from their impact on coastal communities and even in some cases national security.

There are interlinkages between different expressions of blue crime in the region, even though it’s not always clear how different Pacific organisations involved in the fight against maritime crime share information.

Our neighbours are aware of the mutual interest in defeating blue crime but also know the capacity to fight blue crime is asymmetric.

While the Pacific island states need to own an equal share in combating it, this mutual ownership has proved difficult despite Australia’s continuing efforts to be inclusive.

Australia continues to show its commitment to working cooperatively to secure the Pacific Islands’ maritime domains. Defence is making a significant contribution to responding to the blue crime challenge in the region.

The Guardian-class patrol boats, the central element of Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program, support the depth of these mutual security interests.

The new Pacific Fusion Centre, will have its permanent home in Port Vila and will inform both strategic and operational responses to issues such as illegal fishing and drug trafficking.

Blue crime and other maritime security challenges are projected to be even more difficult in future so it’s important to assess how well-placed Defence is to work with our island neighbours and close Pacific defence allies in meeting the challenges of blue crime.

How should Defence build better synergies in tackling crime at sea in the Pacific? Critically Defence needs to work with small states that have limited national capacity: most lack formal military establishments to blend and secure common mission objectives.

Now is the time to evaluate island governments’ identification of blue crime threats, assess island perceptions of external assistance needed to enhance their capacity to respond to blue crime, and review Defence’s current policies and capacities to respond to blue crime in the Pacific. This will include examining regional arrangements for sharing best practice and lessons learnt with the operations of the Guardian-class boats in responding to blue crime.

*Dr Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow with ASPI and for 20 years served as an academic at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

First published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

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