Australia and New Zealand have been urged to do more to fight the drug trade across the Pacific and take responsibility for the fact that the demand for drugs in cities such as Sydney and Auckland was having devastating effects on small Pacific nations.
Drug traffickers transport cocaine and methamphetamines through Pacific nations from the US and Latin America to Australia and New Zealand, where drug users pay the highest price per gram (about A$300 or £180) for cocaine and have the highest cocaine use per capita in the world.
While the route has been in use for decades, law enforcement experts told the Guardian that the quantity of drugs trafficked through it has exploded in the last five years.
“We have to take ownership for the fact that this is a problem impacting the Pacific purely due to Australia and New Zealand’s appetite for cocaine and methamphetamines,” said Jose Sousa-Santos, who researches transnational crime in the Pacific at Massey University in New Zealand.
“If we didn’t have Australian and New Zealand drug markets, we wouldn’t have the movement of drugs through the Pacific.”
Sousa-Santos said Australia and New Zealand were the cash cows of the region and enduringly big profit margins would only lead to more movement of drugs.
As part of the High Seas investigation, the Guardian found that trade through the Pacific is causing grave social harm in nations including Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, which now have domestic markets for the drugs and are suffering from addiction, corruption and violence.
John Coyne, head of border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said that Pacific nations were the “victims” of being caught between Australia and its drug supplier.
“They are transit countries for organised crime in the importation of drugs,” he said. “That has ripple effects on issues such as corruption, foreign bribery, rule of law and those sorts of issues. We shouldn’t underestimate [the impact] the appetite of Australia for illicit drugs has on countries in the Pacific.”
Superintendent Brett Kidner, who was based in Fiji as the senior liaison officer in the Pacific for the Australian Federal Police from 2016 to 2019, said the question of Australia’s responsibility for the damaging impact of drugs in the Pacific is a topic that is “kicked around a lot”.
“The Australian federal police, as well as the Australian government take the position very seriously and responsibly, and it’s not a matter that we’re responsible, but we do have a responsibility to our partners in the Pacific … to work collaboratively to stamp out organised crime and the illicit trade of any commodities, certainly that includes drugs,” he said.
Coyne said that the Australian government has “a long history of engagement in the region” and has provided defence programs, training opportunities, patrol boats, air surveillance hours and helped to establish a regional trans-national crime centre in order to assist Pacific nations with the fight against drug trafficking.
But Sousa-Santos said that while there were some good initiatives in the region, he had encountered resentment among Pacific communities over the approach taken by Australia and New Zealand.
“That is definitely the feeling on the ground in the Pacific, not only that there are not enough resources being put toward this issue, but they also feel that Australia and New Zealand are trying to protect their own borders, leaving the Pacific as a secondary concern.”
“The attitude still seems to be to stop drugs at the Australia and New Zealand borders and to utilise the Pacific almost as a shield,” he said. “I think the main driver continues to be how to keep Australia and New Zealand safe from the scourge of drugs.”
He said there were also complaints that Pacific law enforcement agencies were not treated as equal partners with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts.
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said: “Australia is stepping up its security engagement in the Pacific, including through key regional initiatives the Australia Pacific Security College and Pacific Fusion Centre. Together these programs will build Pacific capacity to combat drug trafficking through strengthened regional information sharing and coordination.”
A spokesperson fro the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that organised crime and drugs, particularly methamphetamine, is a “serious concern” for Pacific nations.
“Working in partnership with Pacific neighbours to address drug-related issues is a priority for New Zealand, and for the region,” said the spokesperson, who highlighted the work of the New Zealand government in the region, including a plan to invest NZ$9m over the next three years to support Tongan policing and justice, including supporting work to combat illegal drugs, the provision of detector dogs in the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, and ongoing police, customs and immigration support for the region.