Minister of Internal Affairs, Johnny Koanapo, has revealed that many Ni-Vanuatu citizens are currently in prisons in Australia for a wide range of offences, varying from what he described as “very serious” crimes to minor offences.

He made this revelation during a press conference this week.

Koanapo said that he became aware of this situation during his recent visit to Australia when he met with a Brazilian lawyer who is offering “pro bono” or free legal services to Ni-Vanuatu workers.

He stated that the lawyer is currently handling around 30 cases, which vary from very serious offences to minor ones.

The minister added that a lot Ni-Vanuatu workers have faced many challenges. He admitted that when individuals leave Vanuatu to join the labour mobility program, they do not get briefed on the kinds of offences, for instance, some that are deemed okay in Vanuatu but considered offences under Australian law.

He explained that this is a main reason why many Vanuatu citizens end up in Australian jails.

He wants to see that these information are relayed to the workers during their pre-departure briefing.

Koanapo mentioned that some of them are serving lengthy prison terms due to the longer sentences they have received.

“Some of our citizens commit offences while under the influence of alcohol, and these offences were beyond what I can imagine,” the minister admitted.

According to him, the number of rape cases in Australia has also increased.

The Labour Minister said because of these issues, he wants to improve the governance system for labour mobility recruitment in these areas, ensuring that all individuals go through a single channel.

This approach would enable the government to monitor their departures and arrivals closely, ensuring that citizens that travel out to work are able to return home.

While Australia continues to enforce its laws, the Vanuatu government also has the responsibility of ensuring that Ni-Vanuatu individuals traveling there do not end up in prison. They should focus on their goals and return home.

In addressing these concerns, Minister Koanapo mentioned plans to send a team, possibly including the Minister’s First Political Advisor, a representative from the Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and a Labour representative, to Australia soon regarding the apprentice program proposed for implementation in Vanuatu.

He also mentioned the a policy paper on the labour mobility issues, jointly signed by the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and himself, to be presented before the Council of Ministers, hopefully, today. Once the paper is being tabled, they aim to work the resolution of these issues outlined in the paper.

When asked to provide the exact number of Ni-Vanuatu citizens imprisoned in Australia, Minister Koanapo said the exact figure remains “unclear” to the Department of Labour, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and even the agents involved.

Koanapo clarified that currently the Labour Department oversees the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, while agents are recruiting without restriction.

He acknowledged the absence of a system wherein the names of recruited workers are registered, preventing the government from accurately tracking the number of individuals traveling to Australia for work. He noted the need for such a system to enable the government to control skilled migration effectively, so that it would know citizens that are leaving and returning back to the country.

The Minister of Internal Affairs stressed that it is his intention to review the current system used by agents by mid-year, aiming to ensure that agents are aware when workers encounter issues or go to jail.

Koanapo stated that during his recent trip to Australia, he enquired with workers about their communication with agents, and they reported instances where agents did not respond or turned off their phones.

There are also some agents that demanded extra money from workers upon their return to Vanuatu.

Minister Koanapo noted the need to coordinate efforts to prevent agents from exploiting workers and take additional payments from them.