A national strategy to disrupt the flow of heroin from Vietnam
25 Mar 2015|
Heroin needle

Australia’s border enforcement agencies have a new opportunity to advance a ‘forward of the border’ strategy to disrupt the flow of heroin from Vietnam. On 17 March, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Prime Minister Tony Abbott jointly signed the Declaration on Enhancing the Australia–Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership.

The Australian Crime Commission’s 2012–13 Illicit Drug Data Report states that in 2013 between 80 to 90% of heroin seized in Australia originated from Southeast Asia. The same report revealed that Vietnam is the number two embarkation point for the shipment of heroin to Australian by weight and detections. And it’s playing an increasing role in the shipment of amphetamine type substances.

That data provides ample evidence to support the idea that Vietnam is a pivotal transhipment point in the global supply chain that delivers heroin to the Australian domestic illicit drug market. Equally evident is that the offshore disruption of the heroin trade will require cooperation between Australia’s border security agencies and the Vietnamese authorities.

The National Drug Strategy 2010–2015 states that supply reduction is a fundamental pillar in Australia’s strategy to achieve illicit drug harm reduction. In this strategy, supply reduction relates to actions that prevent, stop, disrupt or otherwise reduce the production and supply of illegal drugs. But this strategy lacks the granularity to ensure that pervasive embarkation points in global illicit drug supply are strategically addressed at either agency or whole-of-government level.

Since 2011, the Vietnamese government has made a number of tangible investments in anti-drug strategies. But Vietnam’s border security agencies continue to struggle to implement modernisation reforms, especially with respect to the collection, collation, and analysis of big data. The size and siloed nature of the Vietnamese bureaucracy provides additional barriers to integrated national strategies at their border.

Section 5 of the Declaration on Enhancing the Australia–Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership provides a commitment by both sides to cooperate on law enforcement. Both parties also committed to focus on ‘the significant and increasing threat of transnational crime (human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, money laundering and cyber crime)’ through increased sharing of information and intelligence. The declaration provides an excellent opportunity for a border security and law enforcement pivot to Vietnam, long overdue given the risk and threat profile of heroin in Australia.

As highlighted in some of my previous blog posts I believe that traditionally, law enforcement has been an operationally managed activity that’s measured using tactical performance measures. The signing of the declaration provides an opportunity to dial up the focus of our enforcement activities in Vietnam to a strategic level. I believe that this strategy should focus on disrupting the flow of heroin to Australia from Vietnam, by raising the costs associated with the shipment of illicit commodities.

For many years Australian Federal Police and Australian Immigration officers have been cooperatively working with Vietnamese agencies to disrupt organised crime activities forward of the Australian border. Much of this work has involved the exchange of case level criminal intelligence on a police-to-police basis.

A national strategy for the disruption of heroin from Vietnam to Australia is needed to capitalise on this work and the opportunities presented in the declaration. This should be focussed on integrating the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Australian Crime Commission, Australian Federal Police, Attorney General’s Department and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s counter-heroin related activities in Vietnam into a single cohesive national strategy.

This all seems like positive news, but the elephant in the room that hasn’t been discussed is Vietnam’s use of the death penalty. Vietnam’s penal code has 29 articles, or offences, to which the death penalty can be applied in sentencing. And drug trafficking features prominently.

In the recent past the Australian Federal Police has sought to address public concerns about international police-to-police assistance in death penalty situations through the publication of a publicly available national guideline (PDF). But for the time being, any time criminal intelligence in relation heroin trafficking is provided to Vietnamese authorities, there’s a possibility that it could be used to prosecute an offender for an offence where the death penalty could be applied. This serves to only highlight the need for a national strategy that seeks to augment police-to-police intelligence exchange with such measures as capacity development.

John Coyne is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user B.A.D..