Urgent border security wake-up call

International law enforcement and media call it the ‘Pacific Highway’. The essential stop for traffickers in drugs, women sex slaves and even weapons en route from Asia to the rich and  isolated countries of New Zealand and Australia.

These countries’ remoteness from the rest of the world means that whatever criminal enterprise people are involved in, the markup they make from their trade is highly lucrative. 

Not only are the profit margins much higher, but for drug producers in the so-called ‘golden triangle’ of southeast Asian nations that produce illicit substances it is a far less arduous journey to Australia compared to the United States. 

The President of Interpol Kim Jong Nam warned in 2019 that in coming years the integrity of Pacific Island states’ customs and borders regime would be tested by these Asian drug cartels.

But we have known about these problems for a long time.

Which is what made a front page story on Tuesday’s edition about a new border threat so confronting. Against the backdrop of America’s disastrous ceding of power to the Taliban, the state that famously housed the most devastating Islamic extremist in modern history, our borders are now at risk of being used by terrorists too. 

In a front page story (“N.Z. terror case has implications for the region: expert”) we revealed that Australian security expert Jose Sousa-Santos warned of terrorist groups adding more, lethal human cargo to the highway.

His analysis comes after it was revealed that Ahamed Aathil Mohamed Samsudeen, the man responsible for the Islamic State inspired September mass-stabbing attack in Auckland which wounded eight, had visited Samoa. 

Samsudeen spent four days in our country in 2016 - a curious amount of time.

“The Samsudeen case highlights two key issues for regional security. First, terrorist activities beyond the islands – including Australia and New Zealand – can have direct implications for the Pacific Island region,” Mr. Sousa-Santos, wrote. 

“The Pacific is vulnerable to becoming a thoroughfare for terrorist organisations and groups targeting Australia and New Zealand.”

Now of course we mustn’t live in fear of future terrorist attacks; even if Samoa is used as a doorway to Australia and New Zealand there is no evidence our citizens would be terrorists' targets. 

But nor is that scenario altogether far-fetched. Fuiavailili Egon Keil, the country’s recently resigned and highly respected former Police chief warned that although terrorists’ focus would always be on Australia and New Zealand Samoa was not immune to a terrorist attack itself.

There is a little discussed Muslim insurgency in Thailand, while radical groups also exist in the Philippines and Indonesia, the same countries that have been using Pacific islands as a drugs highway.

It is also unlikely to be a coincidence that Samsudeen’s 2016 visit coincided with the finishing touches being made on a bill that turned this country into a christian nation officially. As a self-represented warrior of Islamic State our christian country would have, presumably, been an attractive target.

But Mr Sousa-Santos said that a local attack is unlikely; instead he said that terrorists were likely to probe for weaknesses in border controls to enter Australia and New Zealand, where targets are bigger and a cover story as a holidaying tourist is more plausible. 

Regardless of the threat, it all comes back to border control. And Samoa’s modern history shows it is simply not fit to properly police the nation’s borders. 

Problems with the issue stretch back decades to when Samoan citizenship was openly offered for sale in the classified section of the South China Morning Post. The Samoa Observer further revealed that Samoan passports were being sold in our country’s embassies abroad. Dead Samoans’ names were being used on phoney passports of non-nationals. 

More recent cases show the problem has not been solved. Tui Vaai Junior remains at large and living with relative impunity in New Zealand despite being subject to a departure prohibition order. 

The Samoa Observer also caught Ropeti Sione returning from Australia after he purportedly obtained a passport in his brother’s name, allowing him to continue seasonal work despite a Departure Prohibition Order against him for unpaid child support.

Given the stakes, we call for a complete and transparent review of this nation’s immigration processes. As other countries are investing in passports containing biodata that are near impossible to make copies of, we continue to see the symptoms of a failing immigration system. The full extent of these problems can only be revealed by a transparent review and necessary policy changes. 

The threat of not acting now is simply too great.

• This editorial has been amended to remove a description of Mr Jose Sousa-Santos that was incorrect. Samoa Observer apologises to Mr Sousa-Santos for any offence caused.

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