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Australia extradites alleged people smuggler in asylum crackdown

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN
updated 3:24 AM EDT, Fri June 20, 2014
A barge carrying rescued suspected asylum seekers nears Christmas Island on June 22, 2012.
A barge carrying rescued suspected asylum seekers nears Christmas Island on June 22, 2012.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 42-year-old man returned from Germany to Australia to face people smuggling charges
  • Man's accused of organizing boat to take 56 illegal immigrants to Australia
  • Country has been clamping down on asylum seekers arriving by boat
  • Part of a broader policy to deter asylum seekers, process claims offshore

(CNN) -- Australia has extradited a man from Germany to face charges of people smuggling, after a three-and-a-half year manhunt by federal police and Interpol.

The 42-year-old man was allegedly involved in organizing a fishing boat carrying 56 people, which arrived in Australian waters from Indonesia in September 2010.

He's been charged with eight counts of people smuggling. If found guilty he faces up to 20 years in prison.

Australia's Minister for Justice, Michael Keenan, said the man's extradition sent a clear sign to other suspected traffickers.

"The message to those who are suspected of participating in this evil crime is clear -- Australian law enforcement will ensure they are tracked down to face the full force of our laws," he said.

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Border crackdown

Soon after his election as prime minister in September 2013, Tony Abbott declared an unofficial war on people smugglers.

He announced "Operation Sovereign Borders," a military-led crackdown meant to deter potential asylum seekers from making the risky voyage to Australian waters.

The government said the policy would save lives lost at sea. Critics responded that it was an attempt to evade Australia's international obligations to provide refuge to those fleeing persecution.

On Thursday, Abbott announced again the policy was working; no asylum seekers had successfully arrived in the country by boat in six months.

"I'm not declaring victory; there's no hint of mission accomplished," Abbott told reporters.

However, he pointed out in a statement that under the former Labor government, during the same six-month period the previous year, 190 boats with 12,773 people had illegally arrived in Australia -- "more than a boat a day."

The operation may have been successful in reducing the number of boats arriving in Australia, but the government's policy on asylum seekers has attracted fierce criticism. Amnesty International has called the government treatment of asylum seekers "cruel, inhuman and degrading."

Violence on Manus Island

I'm not declaring victory; there's no hint of mission accomplished.
Tony Abbott, Australian PM

After taking office, the Abbott government said it would continue a Labor plan to process all asylum seekers at offshore detention centers.

One of the most controversial centers is on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, where hundreds of male asylum seekers are being held in four security compounds.

The center opened in August 2013, but the numbers of detainees, or transferees as they're also known, has since swelled to more than 1,300.

In February, uncertainty about their future, combined with antagonism between the detainees and PNG nationals working at the center, saw protests erupt into a night of violence.

An independent review commissioned by the government into the riots heard claims of simmering tensions between asylum seekers and PNG nationals employed at the center.

The report, released in May, found the detainees became angry after a meeting because they felt questions relating to when their claims would be processed weren't being answered.

What happened next was a blur of beatings and clashes that ended in the death of one asylum seeker, Iranian Reza Berati. Dozens of others were injured, including one man who lost an eye, and another who was shot in the buttocks.

Senate inquiry

This month, a Senate Inquiry into the February violence has heard submissions about the ongoing fear and trauma suffered by transferees on the island.

"Asylum seekers do not have enough clothing, or hygiene products. The facilities are grossly inadequate and unsanitary. Mental health conditions are rife," said Nicole Judge, a former Salvation Army worker.

Another, former G4S security guard, Steve Kilburn, told the inquiry that within a week after arriving on Manus Island he formed the opinion that "there is only one possible outcome on Manus Island and that is bloodshed."

He said he thought "violence was inevitable" because of the remote location of the center, the poor living and working conditions, tensions between local PNG guards and transferees and the lack of hope felt by the asylum seekers that their claims would ever be processed.

The Senate Inquiry is due to report on July 16.

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