By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Modern slavery victims should not fear Australian authorities despite a major crackdown on unscrupulous labour brokers who exploit foreign workers, a senior official for the country's border force said on Tuesday.
Dozens of people have been detained or deported following raids by the Australian Border Force (ABF), which launched Operation Battenrun in December to target illegal exploitation of foreign workers, said James Copeman, an ABF commander.
"More than anything, this operation is about protecting people," Copeman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"If we do have someone who is a victim of human trafficking, we have some appropriate provisions in place to ensure their safety and security."
Australia is home to an estimated 15,000 victims of modern slavery - from forced labour and sexual exploitation to domestic servitude - according to the Global Slavery Index by Walk Free.
Human trafficking and worker exploitation are most common in agriculture, construction and the sex industries, with victims largely from China, Vietnam, India and Malaysia, said Copeman.
Australia, which is heading to the polls in May, has taken a hardline stance on immigration, with asylum seekers intercepted at sea being held on offshore detention centres.
Modern slavery victims who are detained or approach authorities can be given visas that allow them to temporarily work legally in the country, said Copeman.
"The main target of our operation are those taking advantage of others and exploiting them," he said.
"There is a big difference between people who are being human-trafficked and people that are essentially just wanting cash-in-hand based work."
Operation Battenrun - an operation targeting unscrupulous labour hire syndicates - has uncovered links with serious organised criminal groups and "cross-pollination" with drug and tobacco smuggling, money-laundering and tax crimes, he said.
It has resulted in a number of human trafficking referrals being made to police, about 48 individuals being detained, 22 deported and 33 illegal worker warning notices being issued to companies, said Copeman.
ABF officers last month detained seven Malaysians, including a 13-year-old boy, who were living in "squalid" conditions in the western city of Perth, while investigating suspected agricultural exploitation, the force said in a statement.
Eight other Malaysians were detained in two earlier raids in southern Australia's Adelaide and New South Wales, it said.
After a raid, every detained individual is interviewed and any victims of human-trafficking are identified by specialist officers and given support, often involving organisations like the Red Cross, Copeman said.
Human trafficking ringleaders are prosecuted, while illegal workers who pose no threat to Australia are given a visa allowing them to stay on for between seven days and a month before they return home or obtain an alternative visa, he added.
Late last year, Australia introduced the world's second anti-slavery law that requires large companies to disclose how they tackle modern-day slavery in their operations.
While Copeman welcomed the changes introduced in the act, he said it would have limited impact on ABF operations.
"Proving prosecutions in the migration space is fairly tough ... we often struggle with workers that have been exploited coming forward and providing evidence and statements," he said.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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