Australia's domestic intelligence agency has warned that foreign espionage has hit an all-time high in the country, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
According to the report, intel officials say the public has no clue how large the threat is, or how easily migrants and refugees can be recruited as spies.
An Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) spokesperson said foreign interference and espionage was happening at an "unprecedented scale" but refused to detail tactics used to recruit refugees and migrants.
"The security threat comes from the actions and intent of the small number of individuals who seek to do Australia harm," the spokesperson said.
The ASIO warning comes after the ABC uncovered a secret recording of an alleged Rwandan spy, filmed in a Gold Coast car park late last year.
The man can be heard explaining how the Rwandan Government runs espionage operations out of its embassies and high commissions.
"When there is an embassy, the Ambassador is in charge of the secret agents," he said on the tape. -ABC
According to Australian National University professor John Blaxland, a whole host of nations have a track record of using their nationals as spies in Australia in order to influence government decisions, corporations and education institutions. They do so by planting spies in diplomatic missions, however the schemes could also involve blackmailing or coercing migrants and refugees into becoming informers.
"There are broad principles that apply not just to Rwanda, but a range of countries, including China," said Blaxland, adding "Refugees who flee often have family connections remaining with [their] home country."
According to the report, citing senior Australian intelligence officials, "China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, North Korea and Malaysia were known to monitor their diaspora living in Australia, while also seeking to silence those who might speak out against their former governments."
One source told ABC that in one case, the Australian government used diplomatic channels to voice their concerns in the hopes of stopping the intimidation by so-called "co-optees" or "agents," who are recruited by "fully trained foreign spies."
According to another international intelligence expert, there are hundreds of "co-optees" operating in Australia, and many have been blackmailed, threatened or coerced into joining.
Some, the source said, were shown photos of a family member in their home country sitting between two intelligence officers, as a warning.
The expert said some agents would seek to gain political gossip from the press clubs, parliaments and diplomatic functions, but their main job was to recruit agents and get recruit agents to get valuable information.
This can happen through a front group, or so-called "false flag" operation, where they purport to be something they're not — like a charity or community group, he said.
While acknowledging the threat posed, the ASIO spokesperson went to lengths to insist the "actions of few" shouldn't impugn the reputation of the bulk of law-abiding refugees. -ABC
"It is critical that we avoid commentary that will instil fear and taint communities which make such a positive contribution to Australian life, economy and culture," said the ASIO spokesperson.
Blaxland added that refugees may be easily blackmailed over the wellbeing of their family members, job losses, or even death. Once recruited, this network of informants are often tasked with "gathering information to pass back to the home country," and "conducting illegal acts that are not in the interest of the company they are working for or Australia more broadly — effectively hostile acts."
"Everyone in the national security committee knows that that's what's going on, and it's one of the reasons agencies in that domain have been agitating for greater resources and legal flexibility," added Blaxland.
According to Australian Institute of International Affairs president Ian Lincoln - a diplomat for more than three decades, "Sometimes the methods involved in getting secret intelligence can be a little bit unsavoury, putting pressure on people, one way or another."