Fishers of men find holes in our coastwatch net
The Weekend Australian
14 August 1999

ON the flight from Darwin to Kupang last week were two passengers who hadn't paid their fares. Both were from the island of Roti, south-west of Timor. One was a teenager, the other claimed to be a 10-year-old boy.

Both seemed happy enough, perhaps because, unlike the two older crew of the Indonesian fishing boat they had sailed into Australian waters, their age had been taken into account: they were being deported, not jailed.

But the 10-year-old was not 10. He may have been small and worn a blameless smile, but his hands were huge and hard, and belonged to a man who had already spent years at sea. A day later, safely back in his fishing village on Roti, he agreed he was more like 15. He had been part of a crew that a few days earlier had landed 14 Turks at Ashmore Reef National Nature Reserve, just inside Australia's economic exclusion zone.

He asked why our authorities hadn't bashed him when he was apprehended. Given that this boy said he planned to participate in further journeys to Ashmore Reef to deliver more boatloads of illegal immigrants to Australia, it seemed a good question.

Seventeen times already this year small fleets of traditional praus -- mainly from the tiny traditional fishing villages of Oelaba and Papela, on Roti -- have set out for Ashmore Reef with human cargo, usually defectors from Middle-East countries.

Ashmore is only 90 nautical miles south of Roti -- much closer to Indonesia than Australia. Sailing by the stars and diesel on a sea-path that is centuries old, the subsistence fishermen are by tradition and agreement allowed to harvest fish, trepang and trochus shells in Australian waters.

This year, trochus prices -- the main cash crop, which remains valuable to the button and ornament industry despite synthetic substitutes -- are well down. The Chinese merchants of South-East Asia have not been commissioning expeditions, but the people smugglers have.

Last year, 58 people were dumped on Ashmore by traditional fishermen. In 1999, they have found the temptation to supplement lost trochus income too great to ignore. Already this year, 374 illegal immigrants -- Turks, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis -- have been picked up from the reef. Coastwatch may be the eyes and ears of Australia, but it is the Aralia IV, an Environment Australia government boat anchored for nine months of the year in an Ashmore lagoon, that provides the first alert when the Indonesians eject another batch of illegals on Ashmore Reef.

The fishermen of Roti know the crew of Aralia IV by name. They can point out the location of Broome and Darwin on a map faster than most southern-based Australians. In the villages of Papela and Oelaba, most males over 14 -- none with passports -- said they had been to Australia.

Many Roti people have family in Australia, like the woman at Papela who received a letter from her husband in Broome a few months ago. She crossed two clenched fists at the wrists to indicate detention.

The crime of illegal fishing in Australian waters has become trivial compared with the running of humans. The message of the Australian Immigration Service, which has agents permanently based in Kupang, was glaring last week. The first five pages of the Pos Kupang newspaper warned of the new heavy fines for fishermen caught beaching people in Australia.

A release issued by Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock for the Indonesian press warned: 'People-smugglers can now be fined up to $220,000 and receive prison sentences up to 10 years, or 20 years where more than five people are involved.'

The Mr Bigs of smuggling -- believed to be a partnership of Pakistan-based and Jakarta businessmen with agents around the Indonesian archipelago -- sell package tours in the northern hemisphere on the lie that there will be jobs for illegal workers in the lead-up to the Olympic Games. They also talk of Australia's mythical soon-to-be-announced illegal immigrant amnesty.

Turks and Iraqis can leave their countries on working visas and face no problems at their borders. With wives and children assured that reunification with husbands in Australia -- as citizens -- will be a mere formality, men pay the racketeers about $US8000 ($12,000) each.

They fly to the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, where they are met by agents with friends in Indonesian immigration. From there they ferry down to Kupang, the West Timor capital, or make the short hop to Roti.

Groups of sometimes more than 70 men crowd into hotels or homestays and lie low while their passage south to Ashmore is arranged. This farcical situation is now being addressed.

Two weeks ago, the Indonesian navy intercepted a Kupang-bound ferry off Flores carrying more than 50 Middle-Easterners. The boat was detained and the passengers sent home -- the first positive sign Indonesia is prepared to admit it has to take some responsibility for the trade in illegal migrants.

'They (the Indonesians) sort of recognise it's a problem,' said Jose Alvarez of Australian Immigration in Jakarta. 'They see it as more of an Australian problem than an Indonesian problem. But they can see the impact it could have in terms of relations between the two countries.'

In Papela, The Australian was quoted a price of 3 million rupiah, or $750, to be taken to Ashmore. Sails are used in conjunction with inboard motors, and the fishermen said we could be back from Ashmore within 60 hours.

Sailing from Roti before the dawn, the fishermen try to arrive under darkness to avoid capture and herd their passengers onto the westernmost of the three sandy Ashmore cays.

According to the Immigration Department, the passengers know they are not buying a trip to the Australian mainland. They expect to be detained, and sit in wait for Australian authorities. But they also expect they will become Australian citizens.

Mr Ruddock sent out a warning last month by deporting 34 Turkish men who arrived on Ashmore earlier this year.

They fared better than the Sri Lankans trying to get to Christmas Island. Indonesian sailors from Java, aware the island had only one accessible cove, chose to avoid capture by cutting the 20 loose, in rough seas, in a smaller vessel. Fifteen died.

Leon Bedington of Australian Customs says immigration statistics show many illegals have been successful in staying.

'The vast majority are seeking refugee status,' he said.

'And in terms of time, effort and danger at sea, going to Ashmore's a damn sight better bet than trying to come all the way to the Australian coast. You've got two or three days to go to Australia after you get to Ashmore. They know we'll go and pick them up.'

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