Fly-buys: the boat people's package
Sydney Morning Herald
17 November 1999

At least three syndicates involving Indonesian police, immigration and local government officials are selling Middle Eastern asylum seekers illegal package deals into Australia.

For the current minimum rate of $US8,000 ($12,500) per person, the deals include two-star hotel accommodation in Indonesia and transfers to crowded fishing or freight boats with drop-off points along Australia's northern coast, according to information provided to Australian immigration officials in Jakarta.

The latest information came from an Afghani citizen who yesterday claimed to have been ''stung'' by one of the syndicates, paying for a boat which never arrived.

According to Mr Jose Alvarez, Australia's regional director for Immigration, based in Jakarta, about 2,000 mainly Iraqi, Afghani and Iranian citizens are in Indonesia awaiting departure for Australia.

The asylum seekers are met on arrival at Indonesian airports and transferred to staging posts where they wait in nondescript hotels for the rest of their boat load.

''There are three main groups that we know of and they have members of the Indonesian police, immigration and governors assisting them,'' one source said. ''They are buying boats, booking hotels and transport. We can even tell when the next boat is going, but we have no jurisdiction in Indonesia.''

On Monday, the Immigration Minister, Mr Ruddock, warned that 10,000 boat people were ''packing up'' for Australia.

But the Indonesian Government, besieged by its own domestic political and economic problems, has told Australian officials that most of the Middle Eastern asylum seekers heading for Australia had entered Indonesia legally. This made it difficult to take any action against them.

However, Indonesian police on the eastern island of Lombok arrested 82 Middle Eastern citizens over the weekend and sent them to Bali, after they were caught trying to leave Indonesia without completing proper immigration procedures.

The Australian Government is urging Indonesia to deport the 82 to provide the first sign that Jakarta is willing to help Canberra with the growing boat people crisis.

In July this year, Indonesian authorities arrested 66 people in West Timor and detained 44 without proper documentation at the Hotel Nirwana in Kupang. All 44 bribed their way out of the hotel and were later picked up by an Australian patrol boat on Ashmore Reef, inside Australian waters.

Since the crisis in East Timor spilled into West Timor, the Indonesian people-smuggling syndicates appear to have shifted their staging points to the eastern islands of Flores, Lombok and Bali.

Direct flights between Singapore and Surabaya are bringing more and more people heading for Australia into Bali, using the direct bus connection and inter- island ferry. The shift to Bali has resulted in bigger, sturdier boats being purchased for the trip than the often dangerous fishing boats from Timor.

''The boats are getting bigger and although they are quite crowded they are relatively seaworthy,'' the source said.

He said the illegal immigrants first had to buy air tickets to Asia and, depending on nationality, secure visas for Indonesia. Many were reaching Indonesia via Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Singapore. Indonesian visas were mainly being bought from staff of the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur or earlier along the route in Pakistan for about $US400 each. Iraqis, for example, are required to have visas to enter Indonesia.

Only 13 visas were officially approved through Jakarta last month, but arrivals with visas far exceeded this number, pointing to corruption at Indonesian embassies.

''We have agreed to discuss the issue further ... but most of the immigrants have entered Indonesia legally and we cannot control their activities,'' Indonesia's Law and Legal Affairs Minister, Mr Yusril Ihza Mahendra, was quoted as saying by the official Antara newsagency.

Canberra is trying to convince Jakarta that the new wave of boat people will damage Indonesia's international image as the involvement of corrupt officials in the trade will be seen as condoning the trafficking in people.

Earlier waves of boat people to Australia from China also transited Indonesia, where they were able to buy supplies and arrange repairs.

Sources say the Middle East syndicates are not the same groups which assisted the Chinese.

The other problem for Indonesia is the policing of its vast waters.

''Even at the best of times, the Indonesians cannot hope to control their waters,'' another source said. ''It is not a question of will, but a question of resources.''

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