Security concerns and the visa clearance process
This chapter considers the potential security risks associated with FOC
vessels and their crew. Security concerns have been raised with regards to FOC
vessels and crew carrying dangerous goods around the Australian coastline, and
regarding the sufficiency of security measures at Australian ports.
This chapter considers the clearance processes for international
maritime crew to enter Australian waters and ports, and considers the efficacy
of the Maritime Crew visa (MCV). MCV processes are considered with particular
reference to Captain Venancio Salas of the MV Sage Sagittarius, who in
previous years was travelling around the Australian coastline, despite being an
National security concerns
The committee canvassed a number of issues in its interim report with
regards to national security. Evidence received by the committee indicated that
FOC vessels expose Australia to national security risks, through a number of
factors such as:
reduced transparency of ownership, leading to increased FOC use
for illegal activity;
opening Australian borders to infiltration by criminal elements;
a lack of appropriate background checks for FOC crew, particular
for crew transporting dangerous goods.
The committee remains concerned about the national security risks
presented by FOC vessels, particularly those carrying dangerous goods in
In its submission to the committee, DIBP argued that certain features of
FOC registration, regulation and operation make them more open to exploitation
from organised crime syndicates or terrorist groups. This created a lack of
transparency around ownership, and therefore a lack of accountability, and
insufficient regulation and enforcement of standards by the flag state.
DIBP went on to state that complex financial and ownership arrangements
can complicate identification of the individuals and organisations involved in
FOC operations, making FOC vessels 'more attractive for use in illegal
activity, including by organised crime or terrorist groups'. Illegal activity
can include 'exploitation of natural resources, illegal activity in protected
areas, people smuggling and facilitating prohibited imports or exports'.
The OTS noted in May 2017 that it was 'confident in Australia's
current approach to maritime security'. Ms Sachi Wimmer, Executive Director,
OTS, advised that Australia's approach was:
comprehensive and it involves a number of agencies and
measures. It is designed to apply to all vessels, irrespective of flag state,
which enter Australian ports...there is no information from the intelligence
community at the moment to indicate any kind of specific threat of unlawful
interference with Australia's maritime transport sector. As I said before, we
monitor that very closely.
This position was also put forward in DIRD's submission to the inquiry,
which stated that the Australian Government's approach to maritime security had
thus far prevented an attack in Australia, and that there was no information
(in 2015) to indicate 'a specific terrorist threat to Australia's maritime
The OTS confirmed that it was not specifically looking at FOC vessels
and the risks they may present to coastal trade, but rather the larger threat
environment. Under its enabling legislation, the OTS does not receive
information about ships that have been involved in criminal activities, but
rather focuses on the security threat environment.
DIBP advised the committee that all ships entering Australia must notify
Border Force, and provide an Impending Arrival Report (IAR) not more than 10
days and no later than 96 hours prior to the estimated time of arrival of a
vessel at its first Australian port. The IAR allows for the assessment of risk,
determined by the location and movement of cargo, and provides extensive
information on the vessel. Information includes a vessel identifier, the last
overseas port of departure, estimated date and time at each port, a list of
crew, and whether the vessel has any cargo to discharge.
However, DIBP did note that only those commercial vessels looking to
enter Australian waters had to complete IARs. Vessels, including FOC vessels,
in international waters were not required to report to DIBP on their status or
Concerning FOC vessels, DIBP confirmed that all vessels entering
Australia are critically assessed, regardless of FOC status, using open and
classified information to determine risk. DIBP stated that it would be aware if
an FOC vessel presented a serious risk to border security. Some of the
processes involved in determining risk were detailed to the committee:
we have a reasonably extensive network of Department of
Immigration and Border Protection officers based overseas...working in close
collaboration in our effort to partner and share tactical information to
strengthen our ability to reduce the threat offshore, before the threat hits us
at the border. We are trying to aim for offshore disruption. It delivers a far
more effective and efficient process.
The House of Representatives shipping inquiry in 2008 received evidence
about ships transporting dangerous goods around the Australian coast. The
shipping inquiry heard evidence that ammonium nitrate in particular was carried
by foreign‑flagged vessels, if the ships adhered to international safety
standards. The inquiry noted that:
For security purposes, it would be preferable that dangerous
goods such as ammonium nitrate be transported by vessels registered in
Australia, yet the availability of ammonium nitrate must not be hampered.
Therefore, it will be necessary to continue allowing foreign vessels to
transport shipments of ammonium nitrate until there are sufficient Australian
vessels available for its transportation.
Since the shipping inquiry in 2008, there has been an ongoing, continued
decline in vessels registered to Australia, and foreign‑flagged vessels
continue to be the most feasible means for transferring dangerous goods around
the Australian coast.
The ITF has noted that there are no Australian crews involved with
shipping fuel around the Australian coast, down from 11 fuel tankers in 1995.
The ITF argued that this:
flies in the face of any credible national security plan.
Unlike Australian seafarers, foreign crews have no background checks yet they
are carrying petroleum products, ammonium nitrate and LNG around the Australian
More than half of Australia's fuel comes through the Straits
of Hormuz to Singapore and the narrow Straits of Malacca, an area already
notorious for its piracy. Add to that the potential flashpoint in the South
China Sea and it’s clear we should be refining at home and shipping fuel around
the coast using Australian vessels and crews.
The committee questioned DIBP over how it assesses the risk of FOC ships
that are entering Australian waters carrying dangerous and high‑consequence
cargo. DIBP advised that it undertakes a risk‑based approach to all
vessels entering Australia, whether or not the vessel operates under a FOC.
DIBP uses the Vessel Threat and Risk Assessment System (VTRAS) to determine
risk based upon 'a range of data inputs and indicators'. The risk assessment
determines if any further action is required to address a threat, and 'the most
appropriate risk treatment strategy'.
DIBP further advised that in the 2016‑17 financial year (to 21
June 2017), 15 715 commercial vessels had arrived in Australia. Of these,
1072 had been searched by Border Force.
The legislation committee asked the OTS about security zones and
regulation at Australian ports. In response, the OTS confirmed that not all
ports are regulated by the OTS, and maritime security zones do not necessarily
cover an entire port. It was confirmed that regulation:
would depend on the operations of the port. There are some
ports that have permanent zones established with a ship‑to‑shore
interface. There are some ports where the zones are turned on and off depending
on the arrival and departure patterns of vessels. There are other ports...that
are not security regulated ports. It really depends on the operation of the
port and the type and frequency of traffic which is coming in and out of that
The OTS further confirmed that while its legislation establishes
maritime security zones:
they are requested by the industry participant that we
regulate as to when they will be established and where they will be
established. If they have made a judgement that at particular times they do not
need one, there will not be any MSIC controls around access to any areas of the
In its submission to the inquiry, DIRD advised the committee that
foreign‑flagged ships must comply with a port's security requirements. In
addition, ports must have a security assessment and security plan in place that
is approved by the Secretary of the department. The security plan:
includes a range of security measures informed by a security
assessment, to protect both the facility and the visiting ship by setting out
how they will interact. Examples of security measures include maritime security
zones, access and escorting arrangements for crew, and CCTV monitoring.
Foreign crew clearance processes
Maritime Security Identification
Cards and Maritime Crew visas
Maritime Security Identification Cards (MSICs), administered by DIRD,
allow unmonitored access for authorised card holders to ports and port
facilities, who require access at least once a year. MSICs are issued to people
who require access to the security zones of security regulated ports and
security regulated ships, and who have cleared a security and criminal history
check. MSIC holders still require permission from the relevant authority, owner
or operator to access secure areas and zones.
MCVs, administered by DIBP, allow non‑military, foreign crew on
international voyages to temporarily enter Australia by sea (MCV holders must
also depart by sea). The visa is valid for three years, but cannot be used to
stay in Australia. MCV holders cannot work in Australia. They can only
undertake the work which meets the normal operational requirements of the
The key functions of the MSIC against the MCV were explained to the
committee by DIBP:
The MCV does not allow people to enter the maritime security
zone of a port unescorted. Only the holders of...the MSIC, can be in the maritime
security zone unescorted. I want to be clear that the purpose of the MCV is to
enter Australia. It is an immigration check for individuals, allowing them to
remain in Australia for up to five days as part of a foreign crew on a
foreign-flagged vessel. The MCV does not give work rights or allow unescorted
access to the maritime security zones of an Australian port. The purpose of the
MSIC is to allow an individual to have unescorted access to the maritime
security zone. MSIC checks are different from the MCV checks because of the
access the MSIC gives to those security zones mentioned.
During Budget Estimates in May 2017, the legislation committee asked the
OTS about MSICs and MCVs, with the OTS confirming that:
yes, we do regard the MSIC as a higher level of protection
for those wishing to interfere with maritime operations, recognising that those
who are on MCVs would not normally hold an MSIC and that you have to be
escorted through any sensitive area of a port.
The legislation committee raised its concerns that while the MSIC may
provide an appropriate level of protection, an MCV still allows seafarers to
access port areas, potentially while transporting dangerous goods, without the
higher level of scrutiny of an MSIC.
The legislation committee also noted that while an MCV holder requires
escorted access around ports at all times, this would be difficult to implement
in practice. The point was also made that the immigration clearance process
does not evaluate a person's intentions or employment history.
The legislation committee asked the OTS whether it held concerns that
the MSIC and the MCV were regulated through different agencies, noting the
national security implications if clearance processes were not harmonised. The
OTS advised it was not concerned, as the programs serve different purposes.
Refused MCVs and detained
For 2016‑17 (to end of April 2017), there were 255 132
applications for MCVs. DIBP advised the committee that there had been an
increase in the refusal rate for MCVs. In 2012-13, there were 2943 refusals.
For 2016‑17 (up to 30 April 2017), there had been 13 102.
The increase in refusals was a result of 'improved internal risk
settings', allowing for greater scrutiny of applicants by visa processing
officers. Applicants refused MCVs were likely to be non‑genuine
seafarers, and unlikely to comply with the visa conditions, with a minority refused
'because they do not meet the public interest criteria or special return
The committee also received evidence from DIBP regarding how many MCVs
have been refused, while a vessel was at sea and travelling to Australia. If an
MCV is refused while the vessel is in transit, DIBP ensures that the applicant
is still offshore at the time of the refusal, and then restricts the movements
of that person to the vessel. In 2016‑17 (to 27 June 2017), 11
individuals had been Restricted on Board on arrival, due to unsuccessful MCV
In the event DIBP has significant concerns about an individual who is
restricted to a vessel, it has the ability to request that a vessel stand-off,
although more generally the applicant is restricted to the vessel while at
port. While stand‑offs would allow ABF to board a vessel, conduct a crew
muster and make a determination of risk, it was unable to advise the committee
of how often this occurs as it does not keep electronic records of stand‑offs.
The committee was advised by DIBP about how many MCV recipients had been
detained and placed in detention. DIBP advised that:
As at 21 June 2017, eight people who arrived in Australia on
a Maritime Crew visa were detained in an immigration detention facility. During
the period 1 July 2012 to 21 June 2017, 138 people have been detained after arriving
on a Maritime Crew visa.
Advanced Passenger Processing and
MCV applications for foreign commercial vessel staff must be lodged with
DIBP, with processing times between 1 and 3 days (up to 4 weeks for a paper
The committee heard evidence from DIBP regarding trials of Advanced Passenger
Processing (APP) to commercial shipping vessels and their crew. APP provides
authorities with advanced notice of passengers and crew arriving in Australia
and verifies whether they hold appropriate authority to travel and enter
In 2015 the department implemented the APP for outward travel, for departing
air passengers and crew. The APP was then to be implemented for cruise ship
passengers and crew. The committee was advised that outward APP for cargo
vessel crew has been 'more challenging' due to stakeholder diversity and
However, a four‑month trial of APP on cargo vessels concluded on
31 May 2017, with the outcomes of the trial currently being
considered 'to determine whether to mandate the use of the APP system in the
cargo ship environment'. If applied to cargo vessels, it will require
'significant stakeholder engagement to educate, train and support' stakeholders
in its use, given the complexities of maritime travel.
The use of APP on cargo ships will give DIBP 'more information and a
more timely opportunity to do assessments against risk and make sure that
everybody on board has a visa'.
Captain Salas and the MV Sage Sagittarius
Captain Venancio Salas Junior was in command of the bulk carrier MV
Sage Sagittarius at the time Cesar Llanto disappeared off the vessel, and
Hector Collado fell to his death.
As identified by the Coronial Inquest, at the time of the deaths there
were a number of complex issues occurring on board the vessel, including
harassment, bullying, a culture of silence and blacklisting, and the sale of
guns by Captain Salas to crew members. Given these circumstances, the majority
of the crew were reluctant to provide evidence to investigating authorities.
In giving evidence to the Coronial Inquest, Captain Salas admitted that
he had assaulted a crew member on several occasions, and that he facilitated
the purchase of guns. Captain Salas organised for crew to complete gun
applications, collected money for the guns (with the guns to be collected in
the Philippines), and 'kept a small commission for his administrative efforts'.
Additionally, Captain Salas admitted to stopping the vessel on the way to
Australia, in order to trade alcohol for fresh tuna, in breach of company
Overall, the Deputy State Coroner found that:
The conduct of Captain Salas, most of which was conceded by
him during the course of his oral evidence, speaks volumes about the manner in
which he ran his ship which in my view was through bullying and intimidation.
Captain Salas in Australian waters
The committee's interim report presented evidence that there was
insufficient oversight by Commonwealth and state authorities of FOC vessels and
their crew, operating in Australian waters. This was highlighted by the case of
Captain Salas and his alleged gun‑running activities, and the lack of
communication between Australian authorities.
Over the course of this inquiry, the committee maintained a strong
interest in Captain Salas and his movements around the Australian coast. In
particular, the committee asked DIBP on several occasions to clarify how it was
that Captain Salas was in Australian waters, but was not appropriately
'flagged' as a security concern, despite the events and investigations in 2012.
The Coronial Inquest commenced in May 2015. Captain Salas returned to
Australian waters in December 2015, as Master of the Kypros Sea. Over
January and February 2016, the Kypros Sea travelled between a number of
Australian ports, primarily Gladstone and Weipa.
The committee raised its concerns about the fact there was no alert on
Captain Salas, to bring him to the attention of the Inquest. DIBP confirmed
that 'an officer who forms a view that an individual should be on alert for
some future intervention is authorised...to place an individual on alert' for
their next entrance to Australia. However, in the case of Captain Salas, this
did not occur.
DIBP argued that it was aware that Captain Salas was in Australian
waters, due to pre‑arrival reporting requirements. However, at the time the
NSW Police were assisting the Coroner, DIBP was not advised or made aware that
Captain Salas was a person of interest to the Inquest.
DIBP argued that it had undertaken appropriate investigations into Captain
Salas following the incidents of 2012. In September 2012, a comprehensive
search of the MV Sage Sagittarius was completed, with no evidence of
firearm smuggling detected. In 2014 and 2015, Customs and Border Protection
boarded vessels on which Captain Salas was travelling, with nothing found that
breached border controls.
DIBP stated that:
When we talk about alerts, it relates to specific interest
that an agency wants us to act on, to take some form of action or activity.
When that incident first occurred [in 2012] there was a full operation.
Subsequent to that and without being on alert, as an example, around January or
February , again, when Captain Salas arrived on the coast, we ran the
data through the system and the officers picked up the connection through our
intelligence holdings of this previous history that Salas has. That initiated a
further interdiction and examination of the cabin...We continued to have an
interest once it came to our attention through the unfortunate deaths on board,
the suspicious deaths; notwithstanding he was not on a formal alert per se.
The presence of Captain Salas in Australian waters in 2016 was brought
to the attention of the Coronial Inquest by a journalist, Mr Owen Jacques, and
not by any relevant authorities. DIBP clarified that:
the journalist did bring to the attention of the New South
Wales police that were support [sic] of the coroner that, indeed, the vessel
was on the coast. They then spoke to the coroner who suspended the inquiry that
day and, then we were contacted to issue the subpoena, which we did. We
facilitated his coming ashore because he was actually being replaced—another
master had already come onboard so he was due to go back home. We did an
interdiction. We searched his bags. We did that prior to him appearing at the
coronial but, to my recollection, prior to that we were not aware that he was
required to appear.
DIBP later confirmed with the committee a timeline of events involving
Captain Salas, after the deaths on board the vessel in 2012 and the
investigation into alleged smuggling of firearms, of which no evidence was
found by Customs. The timeline provided that:
Captain Salas signed off the MV Sage Sagittarius and
legally departed Australia via Sydney Airport on 14 September 2012;
the AFP and NSW Police did not indicate any need for Captain
Salas to remain in Australia to progress investigations, and Customs and Border
Protection had no lawful grounds to prevent his travel;
Captain Salas was granted an MCV on 19 July 2013, valid for three
Captain Salas next returned to Australia in August of 2014, as Master
of the Kypros Sea;
during 2014 and 2015 there was no request for an alert to be
placed on Captain Salas;
On 16 February 2016, the AFP and NSW Police, on behalf of the NSW
Coroner's Court, sought assistance from Border Force to issue a subpoena to
Captain Salas for him to appear before the NSW Coroner;
Border Force raised an alert the same day to notify the AFP
immediately, to prevent Captain Salas leaving Australia and not complying with
the subpoena was issued on 17 February 2016 at the Port of
Gladstone, with Captain Salas appearing before the Inquest on the same day, and
leaving Australia on 18 February 2016;
the AFP and NSW Police did not request any further alerts be
placed on Captain Salas, and Border Force could not legally prevent his travel;
the ABF alert was deactivated on 18 February 2016 and this was
the last occasion Captain Salas was in Australia.
Under questioning from the committee, DIBP further detailed the
processes in place at the time, confirming to the committee that under the
newly‑formed DIBP, such events would not happen today:
In those days, the Customs officers were performing two
functions: one was around border control of goods which concerned the
allegation around firearms; equally, they were performing a function on behalf
of the department of immigration which concerned the migration provisions,
which was to establish and verify the bona fides of the individuals – the
master and others...I cannot explain at this point what actions they may or may
not have taken, but I can say [Captain Salas] was not placed on alert. Would it
happen today? No, it would not happen today.
Under the conditions in place today, and based on the information
concerning Captain Salas, DIBP advised that it was possible that Captain Salas
would not now be granted an MCV to travel to Australia.
The committee continues to be troubled by the fact that dangerous goods
are transported to and around Australia by foreign crews. It is also very
concerned that there are ports in Australia with no security in place. The
committee viewed evidence during its inquiry that showed a foreign vessel at a
port in a major municipal area, with no security checkpoints at the port
entrance, around the port, or for boarding the vessel.
The committee was surprised to learn that maritime security zones at
Australian ports were requested by industry participants, and not determined by
the OTS. Additionally, evidence presented to the committee made it clear that
some ports did not have adequate, or indeed any, security checks in place when
FOC and other vessels were at port.
The committee notes that under the Maritime Transport and Offshore
Facilities Security Act 2003, the Secretary of DIRD has considerable
authority to establish maritime and port security areas. The committee
encourages DIRD to ensure that all ports are regularly assessed to ensure
proper security regulations are in place, and are not dependent on third parties
requesting the establishment of a secure area.
Captain Salas and immigration
The committee was very concerned that Captain Salas was able to travel
in Australian waters, without a formal alert or 'red flag' in place, alerting
authorities to the fact he was in Australian ports during the time of the
Coronial Inquest. It was a journalist that set the subpoena in motion and
ensured that Captain Salas gave evidence to the Inquest.
The committee asked DIBP on many occasions during its inquiry to clarify
how Captain Salas was not on alert after the tragic events of 2012, and what
processes were in place at that time to allow that to occur.
The committee remains concerned that Captain Salas was able to travel so
freely around Australia without an alert against him, but notes DIBP advice
that under the current risk assessment framework, Captain Salas might not now
be granted an MCV. The committee hopes that the systems in place for DIBP and
other authorities are now effective enough to ensure that a similar situation
to that of Captain Salas does not occur again.
The committee notes that the creation of DIBP has allowed immigration
and border control activities to become more harmonised. This should enable
them to better assess and reduce risks to Australian security. The increased
rate of MCV application rejections over the last year shows that the assessment
of risk and intent of applicants is working to prevent non‑genuine
seafarers from entering Australia. The committee appreciates the work of DIBP
in protecting Australia's borders.
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