TRADING IN TRAGEDY
Glenn Mitchell & Jim Dickins
27 October 2001
People-smuggling has become the crime of choice for international criminals.
It may start with a whisper in the ear. But just as often, people smugglers openly tout for business in the ports of Indonesia.
This may seem unusually risky, given the sophistication of their operations, but when every local official has been paid off and with penalties no real deterrent, the purveyors of this deadly trade enjoy a level of official protection usually associated with the international narcotics trade.
This is hardly surprising, however, since most people smugglers either have been or remain involved in worldwide drug rings. Their lucrative criminal activities also extend to gun running and laundering their huge cash profits.
The International Organisation for Migration estimates the annual worldwide proceeds of people trafficking to be $20 billion. Federal Government sources told the Herald Sun they have seen estimates as high as $60 billion. The IOM puts the number of people trafficked or smuggled each year at four million.
While some people-smugglers prefer to operate in the shadows, many are known to live a lavish lifestyle, insulated from the fear of prosecution.
Although some still operate in narcotics, the people trade is enticing, not only because of the money but also the relatively soft sanctions.
'The penalties are much less for people smuggling and, in some cases, they are virtually non-existent,' a government official said. 'Besides, the money's just as good as you get in drug trafficking, if not better.'
But while many live in luxury, their human cargo travels in perilously unseaworthy boats on the verge of falling apart.
'It is like the classic contrast between drug czars and heroin addicts,' a diplomatic source said.
The Egyptian man suspected of being the operator of the boat that sank in the Java Sea last week -- Abu Quassey -- does little to hide his identity.
'He is well-known to authorities and he is well-known as a people smuggler but, until last week, he had nothing to fear,' the source said.
More than 350 people, including three daughters of the devastated mother Sondos Ismail (above), were killed when the death boat sank off Indonesia.
WITH more than 10 million refugees seeking asylum each year, the promise of a ticket to freedom creates fertile human fodder for smugglers.
It begins with people -- often highly educated middle class professionals -- selling every asset they have to raise between $16,000 and $20,000.
Many have been separated from families who have fled oppressive regimes through both legitimate and illegitimate means.
The pain of separation becomes too much. And, for many, the threat of execution in their home country is ever-present.
Agents acting for the people smuggling syndicates are on the ground in these countries, including Iran and Iraq.
They are not hard to contact and often regard themselves as Robin Hoods who, far from harming anyone, provide an escape route from tyranny.
'I couldn't believe the way some smugglers treated people,' an Iranian people smuggler, Hamid, told the BBC recently. 'I did what I had to do to help people go where they wanted to go.'
He said he began smuggling people to fund his own passage to the West.
His first clients were friends who could not afford an 'expensive deal' through existing smugglers. Using some of the connections he made in his own journey, Hamid developed a system for getting people into Pakistan.
He described how he would give his clients passports stolen from tourists, and would bribe immigration officials not to raise any objections.
'People used to say you could even get out travelling on a ration card, just so long as the passport control guys had been seen to properly,' he said.
The operation which led to the deaths in the Java Sea last week, however, was a far more sinister affair.
It was co-ordinated by a group believed to be involved in narcotics, gun-running and money laundering.
The operation was run using the infrastructure set up during the racket's drug operations.
The unseaworthy vessel had probably been used before in heroin smuggling and gun-running, Jakarta-based diplomatic sources told the Herald Sun.
'The people-smugglers have everything they need in terms of infrastructure,' a senior diplomat said. 'They have the boats, the guns and, most importantly, they have the necessary officials in their pockets.'
The diplomat said many of those who died entered neighbouring Malaysia visa-free and crossed the Straits of Malacca to Indonesia.
Once in Indonesia, contact was made with the local smugglers.
'Many are quite open about it and they don't have to worry about arrest because they've paid off the local officials,' the diplomat said.
The service they offer is virtually too good for asylum seekers to resist.
Not only do they guarantee 'safe passage' to Australia, they provide hotel accommodation, travel documents and forged passports.
'They offer the full service because they pay off harbour authorities and local municipal officials to help provide the documents the asylum seekers need,' an Australian Government official said.
They also bribe police. It appears likely some corrupt Indonesian police forced the asylum seekers on to the Java Sea death boat at gunpoint.
The price for passage is never less than $2000-a-head. In some cases, it's as high as $20,000. Some of the survivors from last week's tragedy said they paid up to $8000 for a berth on the boat.
The price varies so much because the smugglers receive intelligence on which asylum seekers have the most money.
Those with extra cash get on better boats.
'You get what you pay for, like in any business,' one diplomat said.
There has also been a marked change in the people smuggling market in the past year. Many smaller operators have been put out of business by Indonesian police, allowing those moving from drug trafficking to take over.
'That is why we are seeing bigger boats and it is also why the market is growing at a rapid rate,' a government official said. 'These people are businessmen who know how to run illegal operations. They are experts at it.'
Now being housed in a hostel outside Jakarta, 25-year-old Iraqi national Kareem-Jabar said Abu Quassey pistol-whipped one man who tried to disembark with his family before the ill-fated voyage began.
'When most of us saw the boat was too dangerous we wanted to get off and get our money back,' said Kareem-Jabar, whose eight-year-old son died when the boat sank in heavy seas.
'But several police in smaller boats pointed their guns at us.
'The police were protecting the smugglers. Quassey held a walkie-talkie and had four associates with him.'
Australia will get the chance to air its concerns about people-smuggling in Jakarta next month.
Indonesia will host a gathering of so-called 'transit countries', such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia itself, and target nations such as Australia.
Australia cannot hope to make serious inroads into people smuggling without co-operation from countries closer to its source. If Indonesia, for example, could prevent its ports being used as jumping-off points, the people smuggling chain would be seriously damaged, if not broken, at least temporarily.
Of course, Australia would have to offer something in return, probably a major financial inducement.
Ultimately though, Australia cannot expect such a massive problem to be solved quickly or easily.