In 2018 I was sitting at a large table in a meeting room in Nuku'alofa. Its walls were decorated with traditional Tongan mats, carvings, weapons and a large crucifix. Opposite me were two Tongan men, wearing the ubiquitous crisp white shirts with red epaulettes of the Salvation Army, and the ta'ovala, or traditional Tongan mat, around their waists. These two men were on the front line - and some say the only line - of the tide of crystal methamphetamine addiction in Tonga.
One of these men was Ned Cook. Ned had returned to Tonga after 45 years living in New Zealand to lead the Salvation Army's Alcohol Drug and Awareness Centre (ADAC) in Nuku'alofa. A year later, Ned Cook would be murdered. In an interview with NZ television a year earlier, Ned had acknowledged the dangers, saying, "I know this is a dangerous field to work in and it could harm my life and my family's life".
The Salvation Army ran the only detox program in the country. Between the Salvation Army, small local NGOs, local churches, and the mental health ward at the national hospital, there are no other safety nets. This is a familiar situation across the Pacific region.
In Fiji police authorities reported earlier this year that illicit drugs more lethal than crystal methamphetamines are being produced locally. The Director of Public Prosecutions has stated that local traffickers could make between USD$2500 and USD$5000 per day from the sale of cocaine and methamphetamines on the local market. There is no doubt the economic fallout of COVID-19 will worsen this crisis.
The Pacific Islands region has seen an increase in transnational criminal activities - specifically drug trafficking - demonstrating that the region has become progressively valuable to Asian, Central and South American transnational crime syndicates as both a transit route to more lucrative markets in Australia and New Zealand and for precursors from Asia to the Americas.
The Australian and New Zealand governments have responded by creating and supporting a range of programs and initiatives linked to a partner-led Pacific-supported regional security and law enforcement responses. These initiatives have targeted criminal syndicates involved in drug trafficking through the region with reasonable success.
The human cost is the actual harm that drug trafficking, transnational crime and issues such as the return of criminal deportees from Australia, New Zealand and the United States have on Pacific societies and power structures. They are key to the stability and resilience of Pacific states and communities. Weakened traditional power structures such as the church and chiefly structures impact their ability to mitigate the fallout caused by an increase in regional and local criminal activities by indigenous criminal entities.
These groups and syndicates are willing to partner with external actors and engage in intimidation, violence, corruption and the infiltration of the organs of state. By targeting Pacific communities and the high-risk youth demographic, these indigenous criminal groups have created local drug markets, control prostitution and human trafficking have created a landscape where a whole of society response in conjunction with law enforcement is required to address the threat posed by these criminal entities.
The issues which are created by drug addiction are not only the risk to society by this new level of criminality. Pacific states do not have the resources to address the wider impact of drug addiction such as medical and psychiatric issues.
It is a well-established fact that transnational crime has become a critical feature of the Pacific Islands security landscape. Five years ago, at a United States Special Operations Command Pacific programme in Cebu, Philippines, I gave a lecture on what I had termed the "Crystal Road", the illicit corridor enabling the trafficking of narcotics, particularly crystal methamphetamines, from Asia and Central and South America, through the Pacific, to the coveted Australian and New Zealand markets.
It was clear then, as it is now, that the threat to Pacific Islands region was evolving faster than the responses to it. In recognition of this, in 2018 transnational crime was named one of four key challenges the region is facing in the Pacific Islands Forum Boe Declaration on Regional Security (to which Australia and New Zealand are signatories).
Transnational crime sits at the nexus of security and vulnerability in the Pacific. Few Pacific states have the financial resources and capacity to mitigate the national security and societal impact of the activities of organised crime syndicates trafficking and producing drugs within their borders. Moreover, the human cost can be witnessed in communities and villages across the Pacific.
A sex worker in Nadi told me that she and other sex workers used methamphetamines intravenously because "it was quicker to use, smoking it takes too much time and makes it easier for the police to catch you." There was little awareness of how intravenous drug use placed users (and their customers and sexual partners) at higher risk of HIV/AIDS. Few Pacific countries are equipped to deal with the secondary consequences of drug usage and addiction in their communities.
The Australian and New Zealand drug markets are enduring drivers for transnational criminal activity in the region. Furthermore, the criminal deportee policies of Australia, New Zealand and the US have inadvertently contributed to the challenge. Criminal deportees are being returned to their countries of birth with little or no community links, cultural knowledge, language, support mechanisms, or employment prospects.
As a young deportee in Tonga who had left the islands at the age of three told me, "I don't belong here, I'm a Kiwi. I just want to go home." These policies have led to some deportees gravitating together and returning to criminal behaviour. This new demographic has further facilitated the activities of transnational criminal entities involved in the trafficking of narcotics with the contacts which some have with criminal organisations and entities outside the Pacific. This has also led to the emergence of regional indigenous criminal syndicates willing to capitalise on the opportunities this new local market provides.
The impact of illicit drugs on human security is complex and demands context-specific and culturally appropriate responses. Transnational crime is impacting governance and weakening traditional power structures as well as enabling corruption and the infiltration of law enforcement, customs, and defence and other sectors. As an official on the frontlines said to me, "people know who is bringing the drugs into the country, but they do not talk. We do not know who to trust. This is a small place, and everybody knows everybody. I have to keep my family safe." For a region under significant economic duress due to COVID-19, these vulnerabilities are further exacerbated.
There are a number of key areas where Australia and New Zealand could have a positive impact. For instance, supporting Pacific states to implement the Boe Declaration Action Plan including strengthening the necessary mechanisms at the national level; strengthening national capacities; building more significant linkages between Pacific law enforcement and other relevant agencies; and building the critical supporting systems within the health, education and social service sectors to support communities and individuals. The Pacific states are paying the price for the drug appetite and markets of Australia and New Zealand. We have a brief window to ensure the Pacific does not become a major market itself.
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