The People Smugglers
4 November 2001


ROSS COULTHART: Their trade goes back hundreds of years. The Iraqis and the Afghans know them as the 'kachookchi'. But now their boats ply the sea between Indonesia and Australia in ever-increasing numbers. They carry a human cargo. They are the people smugglers. It's a dangerous and desperate journey, and 16 days ago it ended in tragedy.

ESRA HUSSEIN: What's Australia doing? What's Australia doing for every person here? Every person dead. Not, no do anything. No do anything. All person dead.

ROSS COULTHART: More than 350 people drowned when their boat sank en route to Australia. This little boy lost nine members of his family. Yet within days, we secretly filmed one of Indonesia's biggest people smugglers negotiating a price on another boat to Australia. It's due to leave this week. That's US$5,200, more than AUS$10,000, to get a dozen people to Australia. Hussein Jawad Hussein's family, like many on board, had applied for UN recognition as refugees. After many months of waiting, they still had no answer. Others had been accepted as genuine refugees only to find that no country would take them. In desperation, they paid the "kachookchi'' for passage to Australia.

RAYMOND HALL, UNHCR: Some of these people are getting extremely frustrated at the slowness of the resettlement offers and, indeed, that does increase the risk that they will try to get on another boat.

ROSS COULTHART: If you were one of those refugees waiting for a country to take you, would you get on a leaky boat to Australia?

RAYMOND HALL: That is a hypothetical question - I may well. I may well.

ROSS COULTHART: Official efforts to catch the people smugglers are feeble and inadequate at best. Yet, the evidence is there to be had. Sunday was able to catch the smugglers planning their next human cargo to Australia. Eight year old Hussein's relatives are worried - he's not wept since seeing his mother drown. His father, Jawad Hussein Ali, survived. Once an anaesthetist in a Baghdad hospital, he claims to have fled persecution in Saddam Hussein's Iraq and brought his family to Indonesia. More than a year ago, he applied to the UN to be given refugee status. He's still waiting for an answer. He came here to Bogor near Jakarta. There are thousands of Afghan and Iraqi families like the Husseins are scattered across Indonesia, but there's little for asylum seekers here - no schooling, and no right to work. Mr Hussein lost almost all his family because he wanted his children to have one thing - an education.

JAWAD HUSSEIN ALI: My son Hussein tell me... Papa I want to go to school. Why I no go to school? Zaainab, my brother's daughter tells me I want to go to school. We stay one year and one month. No anyone can come speak with me. Why?

ROSS COULTHART: Hussein is all he has left. When the overloaded boat capsized in six-metre waves, his father grabbed Hussein and his brother, but only Hussein survived, as they drifted in the open sea for 22 hours.

JAWAD HUSSEIN ALI: After this I, where's my wife? Where's my momma? Where's my brother? I don't see yes. After this my daughter I don't know why dead. I see no anything. She's dead. I don't know why. I take my son Hussein. Tell me where's Momma? I tell him, Momma here.

ROSS COULTHART: Adrift, no rescue imminent, bodies in the water around them, little Hussein begged for water. His father had no choice - to save his last child, he gave his son his own urine to drink. There in the open sea with Hussein and his father, was his uncle, Ahmad. He says Hussein's pleas for help gave him a reason to live.

AHMAD HUSSEIN ALI: He kept calling me. He was with his father and two of his younger brothers as they died. He called out for me 'uncle' and then to his other uncle, my brother. "Don't go away, don't die. Don't die. I won't be able to live alone."

ROSS COULTHART: They clung on for hours through the night as people drifted away to their deaths.

AHMAD HUSSEIN ALI: There were so many because they were so tired. They swallowed lots of salt water and became do thirsty. They became tired and couldn't make use of the timber debris or any other things.

ROSS COULTHART: 12-year-old Zainaab Ahssan Abbas is now all alone. All her family are gone - her two brothers, her two sisters, her mother and her father. The women and the children were below deck when the boat capsized in the violent seas. Before Zainaab's mother drowned, she lifted her child to safety.

ZAINAAB AHSSAN ABBAS: We were under the deck and my mother was screaming at us to go up on deck.

REPORTER: What was she doing?

ZAINAAB AHSSAN ABBAS: She was pleading with us.

ROSS COULTHART: Their boat was a death trap. It quickly broke apart in the rough seas. In the darkness, her 6-year-old brother died.

ZAINAAB AHSSAN ABBAS: He was only a little boy and he drowned. He swallowed a lot of seawater and it suffocated him. He could not breath.

ROSS COULTHART: In the cold economics of the 'kachookchi' - the people smugglers know the asylum seekers will take almost any risk to get to Australia. On that fateful voyage, 400 people were crammed into a boat the same length, but with more room under deck than this one. Down below, many women and children had no way of escape. Just one in ten passengers survived - among them, Amal Hassan.

AMAL HASSAN, SURVIVOR: When the boat fall down, everybody, everybody, you know, fall in the water. My eyes open. I drink many, many water. There is many, many child, many, many women, quickly, quickly die.

ROSS COULTHART: And you could see underneath?

HASSAN: Yes, I could see them.

ROSS COULTHART: How did you manage to stay alive, do you believe?

AMAL HASSAN: I didn't know. I ask myself why I didn't die. Because maybe I know some swim - not good. I'm try to live. I want to live.

ROSS COULTHART: It begs belief that anyone could think of using a boat so old, so small and so dangerous to carry themselves and four hundred other people, but to think of using a boat like this to carry them all the way to Australia is a measure of just how desperate they are. But if you think that last month's tragedy was the first or the last, or that it's going to deter them, then think again. Most of the asylum seekers that we've met here in Indonesia claim they are so desperate to get to Australia they would rather die in the attempt than not try at all. Eighty of the people on that boat came from this refugee hostel two hours from Jakarta. Only six are now alive. But incredible as it may seem, almost everyone here is now waiting for the next boat to Australia.

ROSS COULTHART: How many of you will go to Australia on a boat to try to get refuge in Australia? (Many put up their hands)

ROSS COULTHART: The claim that these people are queue-jumpers is a grotesque distortion of reality. For the many thousands of Afghan refugees who arrive at the Australian High Commission in Islamabad, the doors are locked. There is no queue, no immigration office, just a recorded message informing callers they need to contact the Islamabad Processing Unit, 4,000km away in Bangkok. It all seems like a cruel joke for Afghan refugees like Sala Cresak, a survivor from the boat that sank. In an extraordinary feat of endurance, he clung on to driftwood with his remaining baby daughter on his shoulders until they were rescued by a passing fishing boat. But despite the danger, he says he may go on a boat to Australia again.

SALA CRESAK: Again? No, I don't want to go again. But if my problem is not solved here in Indonesia maybe I might go. Why do we have to stay here? We want some other nation or human rights organisation to help us. We want to be free.

ROSS COULTHART: Abdul Rashid Matin was once a doctor in a Kabul hospital. He's not even going to bother applying for refugee status here in Indonesia because friends of his have waited for years for an answer. He and his wife and four children narrowly avoided death earlier this year, when their boat also sank, killing two people. After a 10-hour swim, they got back to shore.

ROSS COULTHART: How on earth did you keep a 1-year-old alive in the water for so many hours?

ABDUL RASHID MATIN, SURVIVOR: With a shawl. I tied him on my shoulders.

ROSS COULTHART: And you were just kicking your feet to keep afloat?

ABDUL RASHID MATIN: Yeah, yeah, I keep afloat.

ROSS COULTHART: Even after an event like that, you would still try again to go to Australia?


ROSS COULTHART: Why should you be allowed to stay in Australia?

ABDUL RASHID MATIN: I request the Australian people that as they're a human being and pay attention to another human being and help us. I not mean only myself, I mean all the refugees who are really refugees, who really want to save their lives. They do not want to make a life. They want to save their lives.

ROSS COULTHART: Across Indonesia, just over two thousand asylum seekers in camps like this one have applied to the United Nations for refugee status. Only about five hundred have so far been recognised as refugees. There are probably thousands more people here who haven't bothered to apply for refugee status. As only 70 of the acknowledged refugees have been offered a new country, it seems pointless to apply. Australia has taken just 17 refugees from Indonesia in the past 5 years.

ROSS COULTHART: As I understand it, Australia is reluctant to take refugees from Indonesia because it fears that might encourage other asylum seekers to come to Indonesia. Is that how you understand it?

RAYMOND HALL, UNHCR: Yes, it feels that it will encourage refugees and other illegal immigrants to come through Indonesia to Australia. So it has, indeed, had a policy of not accepting refugees from Indonesia.

ROSS COULTHART: Surely that policy also means, though, that the many acknowledged refugees who are already in Indonesia, have nothing to lose and everything to gain by getting on a leaky boat to Australia?

RAYMOND HALL: Well, the Australians, of course, would say that they were getting on leaky boats anyway, but certainly this is a risk that people, particularly recognised refugees, who have got close family links in Australia, and who can't really wait or are unwilling to wait for other resettlement options in other parts of the world, may see their only option to be to continue their journey illegally on a leaky boat.

ROSS COULTHART: Australia recently promised to take forty refugees, but the scale of the problem here makes that promise as significant as a drop in the ocean. It seems inevitable that more asylum seekers will die in the sea in an attempt to get to Australia. In part two, you'll meet some of the smugglers who are sending them, including one who is sending a boatload to Australia this week.


ROSS COULTHART: As we discovered, Indonesian police keep a very close eye on movements out of the port, but they're looking for pirates, not boat people. Our boat was stopped seven times as we headed out to the open sea, but if we'd been boat people, this week the Indonesian navy made it clear we would have been allowed to pass. Much to Australia's annoyance, the Indonesian navy admitted it will also give asylum seekers food to help them on their way.

ROSS COULTHART: If you were an Indonesian policeman and you had all of these asylum seekers on your territory, wouldn't you be pushing them on to Australia yourself?

RAYMOND HALL: Well, I only hesitate there in relation to the word "pushing". I think if I were an Indonesian policeman I may well be saying, "Well, why should I keep this problem?" And it's very easy for a police or an immigration official to say, "If these people want to travel on... if I, the Indonesian policeman, don't allow them to travel on, I make it my problem. If I do, it ceases to be my problem."

ROSS COULTHART: Last week, more than one hundred Iraqi refugees staged a sit-in at the United Nations building in Jakarta - angry at delays in finding a country to take them. The Iraqi protesters say they're not going to leave here until they have a date from the UN as to when they can leave to go to Australia. That's obviously impossible, so we're all waiting to see what happens next. As protests go, it probably achieved exactly the opposite of what the Iraqis wanted. Such images are unlikely to endear them to many in the countries they want to live in, including Australia. But what lay behind this misguided outburst of emotion was desperation. All of them are refugees entitled to resettlement under humanitarian law, but no-one will give them and their children a home.

This man was one of Iraq's most famous cartoonists before he fled 11 years ago. He faces almost certain death if he returns to Iraq because he was a member of a political party banned by Saddam Hussein. The United Nations has recognised him as a refugee.

ROSS COULTHART: So even though you are accepted as a refugee, you can't find a country to take you?

MAN: Not just me, all my friend.

ROSS COULTHART: So there are many people like you?

MAN: All my friends.

ROSS COULTHART: Many of your friends on the boat that sank were refugees.

MAN: Yeah, 30 person I know.

ROSS COULTHART: And the reason they went on the boat was because they could not find a country to take them?

MAN: Yes.

ROSS COULTHART: The man drew a picture for us of the man who sent his friends to their deaths 16 days ago, Abu Quassi. He's very angry with this people smuggler now on the run from police.

MAN: I want kill him. Believe me, I want kill him. If I see him in the street, I kill him.

ROSS COULTHART: If the Indonesian police were trying to do their job properly, do you think that they could catch people smugglers like Abu Quassi?

MAN: Yes. if the police Indonesia want catch him, in my view, yes.

ROSS COULTHART: They could catch him?

MAN: Yeah.

ROSS COULTHART: The police spokesman, Brigadier-General Saleh Saad told Sunday the authorities know very little about the 'Mr Bigs' of the people smuggler gangs, including Abu Quassi.

ROSS COULTHART: What investigations have you made into people smuggling rackets in Indonesia and why have your men not been able to make more headway?

BRIGADIER-GENERAL SALEH SAAD: Right now, we are forming three teams from Police Intelligence and the Criminal Branch to detect the people smuggling activities to ascertain if there are people smugglers in Indonesia and their location. In the meantime, what we have is the very minimum of information.

ROSS COULTHART: Just how pathetic police efforts to catch the people smugglers are is obvious for anyone to see just down the road from the police headquarters in Jakarta. Everyone in town, except apparently the police, knows that this McDonalds is notorious as one of the main spots where the people smugglers trade. Our hidden camera caught the partner of one of Indonesia's biggest people smugglers, Abu Zanabi, boasting how only two weeks earlier he sent a boatload of people to Australia. Another's going soon and he's touting for business. But the problem is not just Indonesia's. We were told about this man, who goes by the name Abu Haidaar al-Bakistani Apparently, he's one of the key pins of the people smuggling trade. Sunday was told that Abu Haidaar is now living in Sydney as a refugee.

ROSS COULTHART: How did Abu Haidaar get to Australia?

MAN: By ship.

ROSS COULTHART: Illegally? Was it by illegal boat?

MAN: Yeah, yeah, yes. By ship. Because the police Indonesia is want catch Abu Haidaar and we drawing his face for the police and we have little people know Abu Haidaar and give police information for his passport and his name and everything. Yes. He understand from the airport for he very, very...

ROSS COULTHART: So it was too dangerous for him to go by the airport?

MAN: Yeah, go by ship to your country.

ROSS COULTHART: Indonesian police confirmed to Sunday they have heard allegations from other asylum seekers about Abu Haidaar's role in people smuggling, but yet again, they claim to know little about him.

ROSS COULTHART: So Abu Haidaar al-Bakistani is a people smuggler?

MAN: Yes.

ROSS COULTHART: You're quite sure about that? You're very sure?

MAN: I very sure because I came from his group.

ROSS COULTHART: So he organised for you to travel to New Zealand?

MAN: Yes, yes.

ROSS COULTHART: How much did you pay him?

MAN: $3,600.


MAN: Yes.

ROSS COULTHART: Sunday understands that a people smuggler named Abu Haidaar is known to Australia's Immigration Department, but if he is living in this country, we're told he's very likely to be using a different name. What's most concerning about the Abu Haidaar allegations is the claim that for AUS$20,000, he'll arrange the fake passport and fake Australian visa that allows anyone to fly directly into Australia. We've passed our information onto the Federal Police.

MAN: If you want go to Australia, the first question from Abu Haidaar "How much money you have?" If you told he I have $10,000, he take you there, passport false, with the visa false, with the ticket, aeroplane, and you reach to Australia...

ROSS COULTHART: So you can fly straight to Australia?

MAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ROSS COULTHART: This man's known only as Jimmy. He's one of the principles of possibly the biggest people smuggling syndicate in Indonesia. Together with his brother, Haj Mohamad, and an elusive character known only as Mr Ali, on his own admission he's sent more than two thousand asylum seekers on boats to Australia. In an exclusive Jakarta shopping centre, our secret cameras caught him boasting about plans to send another boatload of 197 Afghans this coming Tuesday from a small island near Surabaya. Our cameras record Jimmy telling a refugee that his fee includes a bribe of $35 million rupiah, AUS$700, to be paid to his uncle in the Indonesian police. Such claims are impossible to verify and may just be a way of extracting more money from a client, but corruption of police by the people smugglers is a huge problem.

RAYMOND HALL: People smugglers certainly walk around with large amounts of money. That money is used, I presume, for paying local accomplices. Those local accomplices could well, and probably do, include officials.

ROSS COULTHART: Do you think that if the police wanted to, they could catch these criminals?

RAYMOND HALL: I think that the police really do need to make a more serious effort to clamp down on human smuggling, and certainly it isn't very difficult to find some of the smugglers.

ROSS COULTHART: Especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, many Afghans and Iraqis fear they may never find a country that will give them a home. Our acquaintance has been waiting for an answer from Canada on his application to move there. If, as seems likely, there's no answer by the end of this year, he's going to buy passage on a boat to Australia. Australian Government efforts to deter legitimate refugees like him are clearly having no affect at all.

ROSS COULTHART: I can hear them now in Australia on the talkback radio and they're saying "Tell the UN to butt out of our affairs. "They've got no right to tell us about our Government policies. "We don't want these reffos there." What do you say to them?

RAYMOND HALL: Well, I also get my own share of hate mail direct from Australia. I think many Australians would not have to think so very hard about their own family backgrounds before they came across, in their own families, people who have needed precisely that kind of help, and I would encourage them to broaden their thinking, to saying "Listen, there is such a thing as a refugee who needs protection."

ROSS COULTHART: Little Hussein smiled for the first time in two weeks when we brought him a soccer ball to take his mind off the loss he now struggles to comprehend. His play-mate, Amar Fowzi Khasim, also now only has his father. His three sisters, one brother, mother, and two cousins, all drowned. These children have nothing, and to them, Australia is the only opportunity. For those children who still have family left to love them, the decision has been made. The journey to Australia is a risk that must be taken.


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