Regional conference on people smuggling

Radio Australia News
25 February 2002
Mark Bowling

On the Indonesian resort island of Bali, minsters [sic] and officials from 20 Asia and Pacific countries are preparing to meet, to forge a new regional approach to cracking people smuggling syndicates and stop human trafficking.

The issues to be discussed are wide-ranging, but with Indonesia and Australia co-hosting the conference, one of the main topics for discussion will be people smuggling. In particular, criticism that Indonesia has failed to stop people smugglers operating freely.

After the Tampa crisis, and the loss of hundreds of asylum seekers at sea after leaving Indonesia for Australia, there's new evidence Indonesian authorities are moving to round up some of the "big fish" of the people trafficking syndicates.

But is the crackdown too little too late?

For the moment it's quiet, the tropical monsoon season keeping boats away from Australia. But will the smugglers and their boats soon be back?

The ABC's Jakarta correspondent Mark Bowling has conducted this special investigation.

photo caption: Abu Quassey

Up close, in custody, the man described as one of the 'Mr Bigs' of Indonesia's people smuggling rackets, doesn't appear very threatening at all.

For the last three months he's been held and questioned by Indonesian police and the strain is showing on the face of the man known as Abu Quassey. His real name is Centin Kaya Nugun. Originally from Turkey, he's been living comfortably in Jakarta for the last four years.

Indonesian police have known about his alleged smuggling business for a long time. But only after a tragedy at sea last October did police finally hunt him down and take him into custody.

Abu Quassey is accused of organising the ill-fated voyage of a fishing boat which sank in the Java Sea [sic], after leaving Indonesia's shores for Australia. More than 350 people drowned. There were only 44 survivors; Afghans and Iraqi's who must live with the memories of losing their families and friends.

Speaking to the ABC, Abu Quassey claimed it was the first time he was involved in a people smuggling operation. He's sorry for the sinking and the deaths, but claims he's not to blame. The responsibility for the tragedy, he says, rests with the boat captain.

But Indonesian police maintain Abu Quassey was the mastermind responsible for this and other illegal voyages to Australia.

They've taken into custody two alleged accomplices: Iraqis Khaled Daud and Mytam Kamirada, who are now also being interrogated.

According to Richard Danziger, who heads the Jakarta office of the International Organisation for Migration, there are good reasons why people smugglers continue to operate.

"Certainly the profits are approaching those of trafficking drugs. If you figure that each person is paying between $US 4,000 to 8,000 per head, if on one boat you find 300 people, and start adding up the figures, the money to be made is enormous," he says.

In a small hotel in central Jakarta dozens of men, women and children from the Middle East are crammed into several rooms, playing a waiting game.

They come from Afghanistan and Iraq, and many have been staying here for months. They have paid thousands of dollars each to people smugglers to get them by boat to Australia. But lately they've had no contact with the smugglers or their agents.

Not all of these people would risk going to sea to reach Australia. The group includes survivors of the fishing boat that sank last October.

A group of Iraqi women were willing to help positively identify Abu Quassey as the man who took their money and put them out to sea.

All of these women lost close family; some children, others husbands.

After the women were shown a video of Abu Quassey under police arrest, they found it impossible to hide their grief. They broke down crying, they beat the walls and cried to God. The women blame the people smugglers for the deaths of their loved ones. One of the women, Amal Hassan, says the tragedy will never be over:

"Believe me I can't sleep in the night. And every time I feel so bad because I see everyone die in the ocean it is very hard. And when I am in the ocean I feel I (am going) to die. I every time ask why, why Abu Quassey, Mytam, Kyaled make (it) like this? Why they kill us? Believe me."

Ironically, after the tragedy at sea, all of these women have been declared legitimate refugees by the United Nations, and they will be allowed into Australia.

Meanwhile, it's proving an obstacle for Indonesian authorities to make charges against Abu Quassey stick.

Australia called for his extradition to face tougher people trafficking charges there. But there's no binding extradition treaty in place between Indonesia and Australia.

Muhammad Indra from the Department of Justice and Human Rights says Indonesia's weak legal system means Abu Quassey will most likely only be charged with minor immigration infringements, including passport fraud. He faces five to seven years in jail.

"We don't have special regulation or punishment for the people like Abu Quassey. That's why our government very concerned, (and) want to reform our immigration act," he says.

Meanwhile, on the Indonesian island of Lombok, the International Organisation for Migration provides food and cheap lodgings for about 400 Afghans and Iraqis.

Some of these people sold everything they owned to pay a smuggler to ship them to Australia.

One group was caught off the Australian territory of Ashmore Reef, held for a week, and then sent back to Indonesia where they are now weighing up their future.

photo caption: Ramisan Ali

Some say they are willing to return to their homeland, but most, like Afghan Ramisan Ali, refuse to go back. "Seventy per cent, (the) majority of people cannot go back (to) Afghanistan, because first they tried to come here because they sold all their properties there. And now (there's) nothing left in Afghanistan for them. And if they go back where can they live? Especially (while) still there is not security and peace."

The IOM's Richard Danziger agrees these people face the biggest dilemma of their lives.

"These are people who have lived for over 20 years in conflict. I think they're tired. A lot of people don't have much faith in the near future in Afghanistan. So there's still a divergence of opinion amongst the Afghans," he says.

"Amongst other nationalities, particularly the Iraqis, its much more difficult for them to go back to their own country. So a lot of them are still here in limbo. "

For the one hundred Iraqi's on Lombok, waiting for the United Nations to process their refugee applications has only added to their frustration.

Muhammad Abdul Rutha says some will seek out the people smugglers, even if it might mean death at sea.

"There will be no other choice but for them to look for (another) way, to be smuggled. Where will they go, you know? They cannot stay here in Indonesia. And the UNHCR will not find a solution for them."

Back in Jakarta, at immigration headquarters, the ABC was invited to meet the latest big catch. Another alleged people smuggler; a wealthy carpet seller from Pakistan.

photo caption: Sahzad Anwar

His name is Sahzad Anwar, and so far he has admitted nothing to the authorities. Their only evidence in the case comes from a group of angry Afghan boat people, telling a familiar story.

Muhammad Naem is one of those boat people, and he says he was swindled by Anwar, put out to sea in a leaky boat, after which he nearly drowned. I asked him about Sahzad Anwar:

BOWLING: Is that the man who took your money?
NAEM: Yes, $US 1,900.
BOWLING: You paid it to him yourself?
NAEM: Yes. When I arrived in Jakarta. I lived in the Mega Hotel. When I was in Pakistan I took his number, his telephone (number). When I arrive in Jakarta he come to my hotel. He took me to his house, after that he took my money.
BOWLING: What did he promise you?
NAEM: He promised me, 'I take you to Australia.'

Indonesian immigration authorities say its likely Anwar will be deported for holding a false passport.

But, one immigration expert says with the right connection, he could easily slip back in to Indonesia, and could soon be back in business.

The campaign to stop the people smugglers is being taken to villages across Indonesia.

Australian government workers are helping local fisheries officers spread the word about the consequences if they team up with the people smugglers, working as crew.

Brad Armstrong from the Australian embassy in Jakarta says most fishermen have little knowledge of the penalties involved.

"We're saying to them if you do go to Australia you will get caught," he says. "The penalties in Australia for people smuggling start off at five years so be aware of that. Don't believe what some of the people smugglers tell you, that you'll only get a month or two months. You will be caught and these are the penalties you're likely to get."

Without boat crews the smugglers could be forced out of business. But it's unclear whether the fishermen will heed the warnings.

There are claims that the syndicates are already changing their tactics. Instead of fishing boats they may soon use cargo boats, and may no longer head for Australia's northern shores, but boldly try to enter Australia's southern ports.

[ editor's note: This article refers to Khaleed Daoed and Maysam (aka Miythem Kamil Radhia), referred to here as 'Khaled Daud and Mytam Kamirada']


Back to