5 NOVEMBER 2001, VOL.158 NO.18

Tens of thousands of refugees are trafficked by smugglers every year. For many, the trip is fatal

The women and children, 300 in all, were sheltering from the rain and waves in the tiny cabin, jammed so tightly there wasn't even space for Rokaya Satar to hold her two girls in her arms. The sisters had to stand, clinging to her skirt. And when the engine suddenly stopped and the wooden fishing boat was rocked back and forth like a toy by the 4-m waves, Rokaya could only grab her daughters' hands and try to avoid being knocked over by the screaming stampede of mothers and children. Then came another, bigger jolt as the boat capsized, and Rokaya could only watch as first her five-year-old was pulled from her grasp, then her two-year-old, both disappearing into the mass of people struggling to get out of the cabin. The next thing she remembers, Rokaya was out in the open ocean, kicking desperately to stay afloat when her husband Raad suddenly appeared pushing a wooden plank toward her and asking, 'Where are the girls? Where are my girls?'

'I told him that they had gone; the boat had sunk,' Rokaya says, her voice utterly expressionless. 'He cried out and said he couldn't bear to live if they were dead. Then he let go of the wood and was swept under the water by another wave. I never saw him again.'

Rokaya, one of 44 survivors, floated at sea for 20 hours, clinging to flotsam and catching raindrops on her outstretched tongue to slake her thirst before a fishing boat rescued her. Some 370 others perished in the disaster, disappearing under the waves along with what had been their hope for a new life, a battered 19-m Sumatran fishing vessel they had been told would ferry them the 36 hours from Tanjungkarang in Sumatra to Australia's Christmas Island. Most of the refugees on this trip were Iraqis like Rokaya, but the passenger list was a roll call of the desperate and downtrodden: Afghans, Algerians, Palestinians, Sudanese.

Each year, thousands of refugees like those who died in the Java Sea on Oct. 19 travel what is becoming the world's best-established people-smuggling route. Cowed, diffident EmigrEs are herded into Middle Eastern and West African airports and onto planes to Malaysia, where they are hidden away in safe houses for a week or two. They are loaded at night onto buses, taken to deserted stretches of coastline and then ferried by small fishing boats across the narrow Strait of Malacca into Indonesia. Then there is the wait, sometimes for months, for another boat for the final-often deadly-attempt to make it to Australia.

But now, with that tide of humanity threatening to turn into a flood, the horrific drownings off Indonesia may finally force previously reluctant governments to tackle the issue. Estimates vary, but at any given moment there are about 5,000 refugees at some point in that pipeline, diplomats and aid workers say, mostly Afghans and Iraqis. The figure has remained fairly steady for several years but could rise dramatically with the enormous surge in emigrants that has followed the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, and the possibility of greater upheaval in the region should the fighting spread. Indonesia's Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda warned last week that coordinated action must be taken quickly by the countries affected. He called for a regional meeting in November and said representatives from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Australia and Southeast Asia would be invited.

Malaysia, too, is worried about the possibility of a sudden spike in the number of dispossessed, but most of that concern has been expressed in private. 'It is a dilemma for us,' says a senior government official. 'If the fighting in Afghanistan goes on, many more refugees are bound to try to come. But we can't be seen to be deporting hundreds of desperate Muslims.' And there's the rub for Malaysia, where the relaxed visa requirements for travelers from Muslim countries-combined with what some critics describe as often less-than-vigilant immigration procedures-have made it the main Asian hub for the people-smuggling syndicates.

Malaysia's reluctance to act on the issue has already chilled relations with Australia. Prime Minister John Howard said the United Nations should get tough with countries such as Malaysia that allow refugees to use them as a stepping-stone. That comment was sparked by an incident in August in which Australia refused entry to 460 refugees, mainly Afghans, aboard the cargo ship Tampa. Like the hundreds who drowned off Java, many of the refugees aboard the Tampa had passed through Malaysia on their way to Indonesia to board the ship. There has been talk in recent weeks in Kuala Lumpur of a variety of measures that might be taken to plug the holes through which the flow of refugees pours-a temporary amnesty, a move to limit visa-free entry to certain countries-but so far no action.

That is a relief for Jacky, a pony-tailed, muscular Chinese who runs the Malaysian operations for one of the people-smuggling syndicates. Always neatly dressed in shirt and tie, Jacky is well aware he looks more like a successful small businessman than criminal enforcer. His wife and three children have no idea what he does for a living. 'I have a registered small business and they think I am a very good businessman because I bring in lots of money,' he says, laughing. Jacky regards people smuggling as simply another line of business. While he concedes that government supervision has tightened-Malaysian police have arrested a number of alleged smugglers in recent months-Jacky believes that eventually his meticulously organized and highly profitable business will revert back to normal. How much money does he make? Jacky smiles. 'You guess. I drive an S-Class Mercedes. My wife also drives a Mercedes. It is very profitable.'

But while the passage through Malaysia may be smooth for both sides, once the refugees arrive in Indonesia, they face a rougher ride. Even the most desperate gambler would blanch at the odds on surviving the final, crucial journey to Australia: some 4,500 refugees have landed in Australia in the past two years. But during the same period almost 800 have been officially classified as lost at sea, and some think that may be a serious underestimate. To get a sense of the risk, listen to the Middle-Eastern businessman who Jacky says is his boss, the man who heads one of the biggest Indonesian smuggling syndicates. Insisting in a telephone interview on anonymity, the businessman speaks in soft, precise English, explaining that he charges about $3,000 a head for his services and 'gives good value.' But, he adds, 'My responsibility ends once they are in Indonesia. I don't concern myself about how the people make their way in to Australia.' Then he adds a chilling coda: 'Many refugees fall into the hands of the wrong people in Indonesia and never make it to Australia. Many people whom I have sent to Indonesia have gone missing. They could either have drowned or been murdered for the money.'

Ihab Khazaal, an Iraqi physician caught by Indonesian police a year ago aboard a leaky boat off Irian Jaya, has come to Jakarta to help the traumatized survivors. 'I would never think of going aboard a boat again,' says Ihab, who has been granted refugee status by the U.N. and is now waiting for an offer of asylum. In the grimy Jakarta hotel that houses last week's survivors, men still in torn, dirty clothes stand alone or in small groups, staring dazedly at the ground or weeping quietly. Speaking on the hotel's single phone, a woman is rocking back and forth, barely able to utter more than a few words between sobs of anguish.

With luck, the deaths and suffering of so many will push governments to plug some of the holes that allow refugees to set out from Indonesia packed into rickety fishing boats. No one should have to suffer like Rokaya, sitting off to one side by herself in a white plastic chair, looking down at the dirty floor tiles, seeing nothing but the faces of her lost children.

With reporting by Mageswary Ramakrishnan/Kuala Lumpur


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