Successive Australian governments have used people smuggling to attempt to criminalise asylum seekers themselves. People associate people smuggling with illegal activity, when it is not illegal to claim asylum at all.
Yet, the penalties for people smuggling offences – up to 20 years jail for boats carrying more than five passengers – are now at the level of such crimes as terrorism, rape and murder! For assisting asylum seekers!
Kevin Rudd put people smuggling at the centre of his anti-refugee rhetoric in April 2009, when he declared that people smugglers were the “absolute scum of the earth”.
Yet, one of the refugees assisted by Ali Al Jenabi (whose story is told in the new book The People Smuggler) recently said, “I think he is the best smuggler. He had a good heart. He was not hard, not a greedy person”.
In 2010, the Labor government introduced legislation to create a new offence of providing advice and material support to assist an asylum seeker to get to Australia even if that assistance is entirely for humanitarian reasons. The new offence is clearly aimed at family members, refugee communities and supporters and makes them potentially subject to ASIO surveillance.
Who are the smugglers?
There is no evidence that international criminal networks are organising asylum boats to Australia. Most often travel arrangements are made by local or refugee communities, motivated by a mix of profit and altruism. Indeed, several UNHCR-registered refugees have served sentences in Australian jails for people smuggling offences.
One such UNHCR Iraqi-Iranian refugee, Hadi Ahmadi, had twice attempted to get to Australia himself. In 2010 he was convicted for assisting 911 asylum seekers to come to Australia – yet 886 of them were found to be refugees.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen constantly refers to breaking the “people smugglers’ business model”– but there is no such business model. Unauthorised travel to Australia is driven by the needs of people fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Individuals such as Hadi Ahmadi and Ali Al Jenabi provide a humanitarian service to asylum seekers desperately needing protection but who are denied the possibility of official entry to Australia.
The simple fact is that without unauthorised travel agents, asylum seekers would not get to Australia. Many asylum seekers remain stranded en route to Australia in poor countries that have not signed the Refugee Convention and do not accept refugees, like Malaysia and Indonesia. Shamefully, in the first three months of this year, Australia has taken only 17 refugees referred to it by the UNHCR in Indonesia.
The vast majority of people prosecuted under the people smuggling laws are the poor Indonesian fisher folk who crew the asylum boats. Between May 2009 and April 2010, only six alleged organisers were charged with offences compared to 347 crew members between 9 October 2008 and 10 March 2011.
The evidence is that Indonesian crew are paid, “on average $200 [or] as little as $60” for the journey. But mandatory sentences, of a minimum five years jail (of which three years must be served before any chance of parole) are being increasingly attacked by judges themselves for failing to account for the actual circumstances of those charged.
Government policy costs lives
The Labor Government has tried to claim the humanitarian high ground, saying that its laws against people smuggling are designed to stop asylum seekers making dangerous boat journeys and avoid deaths at sea. They are nothing of the sort.
In fact the government’s criminalisation of people smuggling makes boat journeys to Australia much more dangerous. Australia has been pressuring the Indonesian government to imprison and harass asylum seekers in order to “stop the boats”. The Australian government has funded the upgrade of Indonesian detention centres and announced $654 million in 2009-10 to work with Indonesia and other countries in the region to “combat people smuggling”. This means asylum seekers are forced to find a way to escape Indonesia as quickly as possible, and take the risk of getting on unsafe boats.
The fact that Australia impounds and destroys the vessels that bring asylum seekers here means they are more likely to be unseaworthy—as the crossing from Indonesia is the boats’ last voyage. If the government was genuinely concerned about saving asylum seekers’ lives it would increase the intake of refugees directly from Indonesia.
The Labor government’s people smuggling laws are nothing but an attempt to compete with the Liberals to demonise refugees.
Like mandatory detention, the people smuggling laws have got to go.
Other articles and fact sheets on people smuggling
Les Murray, host of SBS soccer, escaped Hungary in 1956 with the aid of a people smuggler, and returned there last year with SBS’s Dateline program to try to find the smuggler who he says saved his life and thank him. Read about his story in The Sydney Morning Herald or watch the program on SBS’s website
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s fact sheet on people smuggling
Ali Al Jenabi, “the Oskar Schindler of Asia” was a people smuggler in Indonesia who worked for humanitarian motives, and in order to get his own family to safety.
Bruce Haigh, “People Smuggler of the Schindler of Asia” ABC’s The Drum
Responses to Four Corners program
It is the government, not people smugglers, that has blood on its hands, Refugee Action Coalition
Abdul Khadem: the real story, Refugee Action Coalition