The Department of Immigration (DIMIA) is to spend up to $44 million over four years to upgrade the capacity and effectiveness of the Movement Alert List (MAL) system and software, which Immigration considers one of its best border control tools.
The announcement in this year's Federal Budget honours a commitment made at APEC for Australia, the United States and Chile to jointly co-operate on developing systems for sharing passport alerts to help combat terrorism and improve travel safety for business and other travellers in the region.
The commitment was made at the conclusion of the APEC Joint Ministerial Meeting in Santiago, Chile, by US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Chilean Minister of Interior Jose Miguel Insulza and Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
DIMIA plans to create a 24-hour MAL centre and upgrade the secure communications infrastructure between MAL and the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), as well as its own overseas offices.
A computer database that stores details about people and travel documents of immigration concern to Australia, MAL was set up to identify the names and other relevant information of people known or suspected of being an unsuitable person and provide this information to those who grant visas. It held almost 300,000 identities as at 30 April 2004. Immigration staff in the Canberra entry operations centre are alerted each time a name on the list appears on a visa application, but with so many names on the list, MAL is typically triggered several thousand times a day. It's understood only a small proportion of these, once checked, result in matches.
DIMIA says it considers MAL a key tool to apply the legislation governing the entry to and presence in Australia of non-citizens who are of character concern. However alleged terrorist suspect Willie Brigitte, currently languishing in a French prison, came to Australia from France without apparently triggering the system.
The existing system is the subject of an Audit by the Australian National Audit Office, which is due to report on the current Movement Alert List (MAL) during the Winter session of Parliament. A 1999-2000 ANAO report recommended DIMIA develop standard operating procedures for reviewing new entries on MAL on a risk managed basis to ensure the relevance and accuracy of information and that DIMIA develop a cooperative and effective working relationship with law enforcement agencies and establish formal liaison arrangements with them.
DIMIA says people may be listed on MAL when they have serious criminal records, if their presence in Australia is deemed a potential risk to the Australian community or if they have been subject to exclusion periods prescribed by migration legislation. Details identifying people of concern are recorded on MAL as a result of DIMIA's liaison with law enforcement agencies and Departmental Offices in Australia and overseas.
The system also records more than 1.7 million documents of concern, including lost, stolen or fraudulently altered passports.
The joint statement says under the APEC agreement Australia and the US will implement a trial of the APEC Regional Movement Alert List (RMAL) system that will automatically share data on lost and stolen passports. RMAL will enable border management officials of participating economies to immediately check passenger movements against records of lost and stolen passports before or during flights. When fully developed, RMAL will make more effective the Advanced Passenger Information (API) systems that APEC member economies are building to promote business mobility. RMAL has the potential to become an important part of the border and transportation security infrastructure of the region and is a specific security commitment that APEC Leaders called for in the Enhancing Human Security section of the 2003 Bangkok Declaration.
Chile will join a system that allows border management authorities throughout APEC to manually check records of lost and stolen passports.
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