A contact who lived in Indonesia told me of an incident from 10 years ago. Indonesian police, fresh from a training course run by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), shared their happy snaps with their people-smuggler friends.

While I can’t prove this happened, I have no reason to doubt its veracity. Plenty of sources attest to the double games played by Indonesian police and military. Corruption is widespread and the Indonesian government struggles to contain it.

That’s just one problem confronting Australian authorities when working with Indonesian counterparts to disrupt smuggling syndicates.

There’s also a logistical problem. It’s virtually impossible to adequately police the thousands of kilometres of Indonesian coastline and prevent Indonesia’s fishermen from crewing boats to Australia on behalf of the organisers of smuggling syndicates.

And it’s worth emphasising the distinction here, even though Australia’s smuggling provisions do not differentiate between the organisers and fishermen; all are subject to minimum five-year mandatory sentences. The fishermen are paid paltry sums, sometimes as low as $60 and may not know beforehand that they are contravening Australian law.

Smuggling syndicates range from the most basic and unsophisticated to well-financed, professional operations. In areas such as the Mexican border crossing with America, smuggling is akin to a cottage industry. At the other extreme, Chinese Triads, notorious for their involvement in extortion, pr-stitution, murder, theft and drug smuggling, are suspected of having smuggled millions of Chinese nationals overseas. The organisers based in Indonesia fit somewhere in the middle. They tend to belong to networks of individuals operating in countries of origin, transit and destination, linked through kinship or nationality.

People smuggling is not a crime in Indonesia. A bill to make it so has just been knocked back and it is anyone’s guess as to when, if ever, people smuggling is criminalised there. While the people who make big money out of smuggling enterprises are the main organisers, their enterprise benefits a wide range of people. Boats have to be sourced, equipped and crewed. Passengers have to be accommodated while boats are being prepared then transported to the embarkation point.  People are needed to keep track of passengers, prices and payments and liaise with those paid to ignore gatherings of Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians and Sri Lankans near embarkation points.

International research shows that these syndicates often arise out of local and refugee communities, motivated by a mix of profit and altruism. Several UNHCR-registered refugees have served sentences in Australian jails for people smuggling offences. The research suggests that it is the restrictive policies enacted to stop asylum seekers crossing borders that push them towards the smugglers in order to navigate the obstacles put their way. People smuggling is without doubt customer-driven.

Hence the most effective way to stop smuggling is to focus on resolving asylum seekers’ problems and develop permanent solutions for them. With viable alternatives, they won’t turn to smugglers. And the smuggling stops when the customer base dissolves.

Efforts to disrupt and discourage smuggling can and have backfired, increasing dangers faced by asylum seekers. After harsher penalties were introduced in 1999, to avoid capture crews got off boats just before arriving at Ashmore Reef, leaving passengers to fend for themselves. These same laws led to more juveniles being hired to crew boats as they received lighter sentences if caught. And after learning that Australian authorities destroyed asylum seeker boats, syndicate organisers in Indonesia were less inclined and less able to source boats in good condition.

As a final example, after Indonesia tightened up immigration controls at Jakarta airport in response to pressure from Australia, asylum seekers stopped flying from Malaysia to Indonesia. Instead, smugglers arranged for them to hide on boats crossing the Malacca Straits, a far more dangerous route.

*Sue Hoffman is a Perth-based refugee advocate who has recently submitted a doctoral thesis about the journeys of Iraqi asylum seekers.

Peter Fray

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