The 'Travel Agents'
On the trail of the syndicates smuggling desperate Middle Easterners through Asia to Australia
JANUARY 19, 2001 VOL.27 NO.2

Neither comfort nor safety is a priority on ships run by the people smugglers.

The heavy-set businessman at the bar moves closer, his eyes narrowing. "Let me ask you," he says in an ominously quiet tone that indicates he will ask only once, "Just who the hell are you?" It is early evening, a near-empty bar in central Jakarta and I'm drinking beer with an expatriate Pakistani - we'll call him "Tareq" - reputed to be a leader of a syndicate that ships illegal migrants through Indonesia and into Australia. The alcohol-primed cheer of the last half- hour has evaporated and the gloves, it seems, are coming off. I explain I'm a journalist researching transnational crime and would like to ask him a few questions.

Tareq arches his eyebrows and purses his lips. He's not taking this well. It's clear he doesn't believe a word and is wondering what sort of idiot I take him for. Worse, as he obviously doesn't believe I'm a reporter, he seems to be assuming - not unreasonably under the circumstances - that I'm some sort of Australian undercover agent, and a stupid one at that. The artless incompetence with which I blundered into this meeting probably does bear a suspicious resemblance to how a real Aussie spy might operate. There's a long, heavy silence. Tareq, I notice, is between me and the door.

It's taken over a month to reach this juncture in a search to establish how some of Asia's newest crime syndicates operate the underground railway from South Asia and the Middle East into Australia. Week after week since mid-1998, boats laden with Middle Easterners have been caught heading for islands off northern Australia where the new arrivals - documents consigned to the waves - can claim asylum as political refugees. The tide is alarming crime fighters and straining Canberra's ties with its neighbors as the numbers flowing from Tehran and Karachi, through Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, and heading for Sydney and Melbourne grow from the hundreds to the thousands.

But as coincidence would have it, the trail began just a few hundred meters from the bar in, of all places, a McDonald's hamburger joint. It would be difficult to find a culinary experience more brutally homogenized than the Big Mac. But the McDonald's in Jakarta's Sarinah Shopping Mall has a flavor conspicuously of its own. Come nine o'clock most nights and its brightly-lit interior assumes the ambience of a sanction-stricken Baghdad flea-market. Around its plastic tables in brooding, conspiratorial cabals gathers a motley assortment of Middle Easterners - Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, Kurds. Almost all are males in their 20s and 30s. There, I first met a group of disconsolate Iraqis who had not made it to Australia - the "Lucky Country" as it bills itself - but had parted with all their money in the attempt. They were stranded, bitter and voluble. And it was from them that I first heard about Abu Ayat, Akbar, and Flight IR840.

Stretch a term and you could call Abu Ayat a travel agent. That is, he's in the business of facilitating international travel. What separates this tall, 40- something former engineer from your run-of-the-mill travel professional is that he has no office, answers only mobile phones and has been using aliases like Abu Ayat for so long he must be having difficulty remembering his real name. Plus the bottom line: he can make up to $8,000 per client. One-way tickets only. Cash up front. And no refunds - even if you could find him again.

Abu Ayat is a "people smuggler." Based in Kuala Lumpur in a pleasant mid-town apartment, Abu Ayat moves between Malaysia, Indonesia and occasionally Bangkok in a business that these days is considerably more lucrative than building bridges. He's part of an industry believed to move around five million people each year - mostly from the Third World to the rich nations of North America and Europe - and with excellent prospects for growth. Driven by a mix of ambition and despair, oiled by economic globalization, people smuggling is shifting a lot of money - at least $7 billion each year according to estimates - from the pockets of the desperate to those of the criminal.

Abu Ayat is cashing in on one of the newer ends of the market - shipping people from the unrest and economic stagnation of West Asia to Australia. Thanks to syndicates run by men like him in Malaysia and Indonesia, that movement is becoming highly organized and accelerating. In 1998, 47 boats and 200 passengers reached Australian shores. In 1999, it was some 80 boats and over 3,000 passengers. Last year, by October with the year-end "high-season" to come, the figure was nearly 2,000. Those are the ones that are caught - and thrown by the once-relaxed but now-paranoid Australian authorities into overflowing detention centers. The process of weeding out those fleeing political oppression, who can stay, from those merely fleeing poverty, who can't, stretches from weeks to months, and the spirit-sapping wait has led to several dramatic break-outs and riots. Others will remain forever uncounted. Last month, two boats headed from Indonesia for Australia are believed to have gone down with 160 would-be immigrants on board. One vessel that apparently sank in 1999 with all lives lost carried over 200.

Bashir Ahmed stepped off IR840 from Tehran to Kuala Lumpur late on Dec. 28, 1999 with a forged Iraqi passport, several thousand dollars in cash and a dream that suddenly seemed within his grasp. A minority Shia from southern Iraq, he'd fled Saddam Hussein's rule two years earlier, trekking across the mountains with his mother, brother and sister to join their father - a refugee in Iran since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. An Arab with little Farsi and even less in the way of job prospects, Bashir saw no future there. He found Abu Ayat's Tehran agent by word of mouth, bought a fake passport and was promised a passage to the future. He would go first; his brother and later the rest of the family would follow. That, at least, was the plan.

I met Bashir more recently in Jakarta. In less than a year the 28-year-old former medical student had nearly lost his life in a storm in the Timor Sea, lost most of his family's savings, and spent months in an Indonesia detention center. There, he got lucky - sort of: he was classified a "refugee" by the U.N., meaning he will not be shipped back to Saddam's Iraq. But no third country is willing immediately to offer the resettlement his status entitles him to. Today he shares a tiny room with several fellow Iraqis in a Jakarta slum. In the evenings he and his friends hang out at McDonald's drinking coffee, swapping news, killing time. Well-educated, intelligent and ambitious, Bashir is going nowhere fast.

Abu Ayat probably wouldn't remember Bashir now: he's shipped a lot of bodies since then. But Bashir remembers Abu Ayat and his associates. With a passion. "If they offered me to go again for free I wouldn't risk it," he says in near textbook English. "When I was at sea in that storm, I knew they were playing with our lives. These men are criminals."

It never begins that way. Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) is a gleaming, state-of-the-art facility of marble floors and soaring tent-like roofs that brochures call "Malaysia's pride". For the clients of Abu Ayat and other syndicates, this is first base on the run across Southeast Asia. Australia's Department of Immigration and Multi Ethnic Affairs reckon 50% or more of the new wave of illegals arrive in KLIA. Their passports are automatically stamped with a 15-day visa.

Last month I met IR840 myself - more than once. Even before the flight landed it was clear the reception was anything but typical. Sure, there were families and friends meeting passengers off other flights from Taiwan and East Malaysia. But the Iranians and Arabs meeting IR840 were almost all single males - young, armed with cell-phones, alert. And invariably the same faces, Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday. Various syndicates work KLIA. Abu Ayat's team consists of his brother Ismael, two Sudanese brothers and a Jordanian.

Typically the flight lands between 9 and 9.30 p.m. and it's usually after 10 before the first passengers emerge at the meeting point. The reception committee moves purposefully into the stream. An expected arrival is greeted with a handshake; those looking uncertain get a quiet word in the ear. A couple of young Iranians are handing out flyers advertising the services of a company that offers to organize student visas for Iranian tourists eager to pursue studies in Australia...

Abu Ayat's operatives usually know from their Tehran agents whom they're meeting. The link-ups are made with the cargo - usually young, single males but sometimes whole families. Clients are led to seats near the main door of the arrivals lounge where they wait to be joined by others. Once a group is complete, it is shepherded to waiting mini-vans that speed off into the night.

One night, for the hell of it, I followed a group and its minder. I climbed into a taxi with the one-liner I thought I'd never get to use: "Follow that car." The driver - a Malay ex-Air Force sergeant dressed in baseball cap and track-suit jacket- gave me a lop-sided grin and gunned the car out into the traffic behind the white mini-van. An hour's fast drive brought us by a round-about route into downtown K.L., finally arriving at a row of budget hotels tucked away in a quiet side-street off Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. Some surprise room calls next morning connected me with the new arrivals, travelers with no knowledge of either English or Malay. They were, they said in Afghan-accented Farsi before abruptly hanging up, in town "on business."

Bashir and his four fellow-travelers off IR840 were put up on their first night in a private apartment. The next morning, Abu Ayat arrived to pick up their passports and $500 each for an Indonesian visa. "I told him we'd heard that it was going to be around $200 - no way $500," recalls Bashir. "But he said the price was $500, and if we didn't like it, we could leave. What could we do? We paid." That evening Abu Ayat returned, passports now duly embossed with Indonesian visas. "Fakes for sure," Bashir says with a wan grin. "Cost maybe a couple of dollars."

Traditionally, illegals like Bashir could be flown straight from KLIA to Jakarta. More recently, as Australian authorities plead with regional governments to clamp down, immigration checks at K.L. and Jakarta have tightened up. So these days the smart operators - and dumb ones don't last - look for alternative routes. The budget or bulk option is the waterborne Malacca Straits run to Sumatra. What the smugglers do not advertise is that the boats are not always so seaworthy, and the seas can get choppy, as one group of Afghans discovered in September. An extended family of 41 from Kabul fleeing the stone- age lunacy of Taliban rule for the greener pastures of suburban Sydney, they set sail in the wee hours from Malacca for Dumai, on Sumatra's east coast. In charge of the trip was "Sabah," an Iraqi Kurd and sometime associate of Abu Ayat. Dawn found their tiny craft designed for less than 20 wallowing in rising seas with 45 aboard. It capsized as the reluctant sailors were transferring to a passing fishing boat. A 60-year-old woman drowned. What made this ill-starred voyage unusual was not that the ship sank or that a life was lost. The twist was that Sabah (a.k.a Abu Nur, a.k.a. Mesbah) ended up in the water too. He later tried to blend in as just another Afghan. The pretense was terminated when he was assaulted in front of investigators by one of his incensed clients.

There are alternatives to sea-borne Russian roulette in the Straits of Malacca, however. If the documents can hold up, flights from K.L. or Singapore to quieter towns in Indonesia - usually Surabaya and Denpasar - serve to avoid Jakarta immigration. Popular too is the route through Indonesia's back-door, the island free-trade zone of Batam, off Singapore.

Escorted by a Malaysian woman working for Abu Ayat, Bashir and his companions left K.L. on an over-night bus for Johor Baru. From the bus terminal, the woman took them by taxi to the ferry terminal and bought their tickets for Batam. There, at dawn, they met Sayed Omid, a genial Kurd. He escorted them on the 90 minute crossing in an air-conditioned ferry that skirts Singapore under the flight path to Changi airport and speeds to Batam Island. Immigration at the dock-side hardly looked at Bashir's $500 visa, stamped his fake passport and he was in Indonesia. Batam's main town, Nagoya, is a honky-tonk sprawl of bars, "discotheques" and scruffy hotels. But the island's Hang Nadim airport is a modern facility with, for a little over $100, several flights daily to Jakarta. Bashir's group was airborne by early afternoon.

Jakarta, chaotic, teeming, is the heart of the people trade. To the extent it's visible, the traffic is concentrated in the square mile around Jalan Jaksa. In its heyday, the street was once Jakarta's answer to Bangkok's hippy haven, Khaosan Road - a vibrant 500-meter-long stretch of guest houses, restaurants, bars and Inter-net-cafes, the mecca of back-pack travellers. Today, two years into Indonesia's economic and political crisis, it's a near-empty strip peopled by surly touts and tired-looking hookers.

Benny is a local "travel agent" - of the sort that once didn't require inverted commas. He can still sell you a cut-price ticket to Bali or Bangkok. But sipping a Pepsi in a street-side bar, the bespectacled former professional is surveying the ruins of his business. "Two years ago you couldn't get a seat in this place. Now?" He gestures round at empty tables. "Believe me, 90% of the trade is dead. We're not talking making a profit here. We're talking surviving." A pause, a shrug. "So sometimes we do illegal business."

Benny ran his first boat to Australia in early '97 on the Christmas Island route - his "speciality," he says with a grin. The advantages are obvious: Christmas Island is Aussie territory, but it's closer to Indonesia than to mainland Australia, and the fishing villages of south Java are handy. The disadvantage is that Christmas Island is a very small dot on a large ocean, and if bad weather blows you off course...

On the two-day run to Christmas Island, he and his crew of three carried 15 illegals - Iraqis including, he recalls, a former atomic scientist, plus an Iranian lady doctor and three Afghans. It wasn't long before they ran into trouble. "When we set out at night the water was calm, then on the first day we ran into a storm. This was my first time at sea! These waves were big, I tell you I was so scared, man, I was close to shitting myself. I wanted to turn back." Then the engine gave out. "For two hours we didn't have any power, I thought hell we're all going to die."

Thanks to the experience of the captain, they did reach Christmas Island, where their boat was impounded as a crime tool. Benny - now claiming to be ship's cook and speaking no English - and the crew were separated from the asylum seekers and flown to Port Hedland in Western Australia. There they spent three months detained in what for the fishermen amounted to hotel accommodation. "The food was good and they brought us new videos every day. We'd go down to the beach for a swim in the afternoon and one day they took us for a tour of the town," smiles Benny. "These were really good people. When we left they gave us a party!"

Those were the days. As the numbers of boat people surged into the thousands, Australia has cut back on the room service. Undocumented arrivals now face months of detention as their asylum claims are processed, and Canberra is promising Indonesian fishermen caught ferrying them stiff sentences - up to $150,000 in fines and 20 years in jail. But the boats keep coming, and it's not difficult to see why. After the cost of purchasing a boat and paying off Indonesian police, one vessel laden with 100 people can translate into a $100,000 profit. And, as Benny notes, "These fishermen made more money on one trip for me than they could have in years of fishing."

The trade has shifted in favor of larger loads of people than fishing boats can accommodate. Organizers are also diversifying points of departure from the usual Java and West Timor. Favored now are Lombok, Bali and Flores. From there vessels hop eastwards to Roti Island, off West Timor, and then embark on the 30-hour crossing to Australia's Ashmore Reef, located 600 km north of the country's mainland. Sayed Omid shipped Bashir's group that way. From Jakarta they moved to a hotel in Surabaya for two weeks. Then, having paid a further $1,000 to $2,000 per head, his group was driven from Java to Lombok in a chartered bus. Finally, now 61-strong, they embarked one night from a fishing village on the island's south coast. The ship ran into a storm south of Roti and had to turn back. Betrayed to local police, they ended up in a camp in West Timor.

Word on the street in Jakarta suggests that the best organised syndicate is run by a well-connected, Arabic-speaking local with government contacts known to his clients as "Ahmed the Indonesian." He organized what is believed to be the largest single shipment to date, a vessel with 352 mostly Iraqis aboard that reached Ashmore Reef in November 1999. The trade in Afghans, however, has been largely cornered by businessmen with connections in Pakistan. At the center of the largest syndicate is a man we'll call "Akbar." A slightly built, almost frail man, he runs a carpet shop in a Jakarta shopping mall. That's where I met him. "As many as 60% of the expatriates who used to live here have now gone," Akbar sighs as he rolls out yet another rug for my inspection. "Business has suffered badly."

No hint of it drops from Akbar's mouth, but sources say he has been more than compensated for the collapse of the carpet trade by the imposition of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and the exodus of minority Hazaras that triggered. From Pakistan, the road leads through Bangkok and K.L. to Akbar's shop. Earlier this year, his side business had grown so large that Canberra noticed, and leaned on Jakarta to take action. He had to go underground and sell part of his carpet shop to a fellow Pakistani running a legitimate business. The down payment of $50,000 allowed Akbar, his acquaintances say, to solve his problem with local authorities.

But it is Tareq, my friend at the bar and a sometime colleague of Akbar, who offers the best perspective on the trade - and to Australia's attempts to stem it. I ring him cold - a cellphone number, of course - from a Pakistani restaurant that knew him, and introduce myself as a friend of a friend I met at a party in Lahore who'd suggested I look him up. Could we meet for a drink? Brief pause, then agreement. We meet in a quiet bar near the Sarinah. I find myself talking to an urbane 40-year-old, articulate, intelligent, well-informed - diplomatic cocktail-circuit material. We talked local politics for a while, foreign investment, corruption, crime. Only then does he hit me with it: Nice try with the friend-of-a-friend routine but no one in Lahore knows me as Tareq. That's a name I use in Indonesia. So what's the game?

It's not yet time to panic. But if a man with serious criminal connections is not enjoying the interview, we're moving into uncharted waters. Areas probably not covered by my travel insurance. The syndicates are playing for big money and unlikely to be fussy about how they protect it. The frequent sinkings show they have little regard for human life. But Tareq is stubbornly convinced that he's dealing with an Australian spook checking him out. And that gives us both what we want. He thinks he's got a direct line to raise a finger to authorities in Canberra who'd love to put him out of business - and the satisfying illusion that the Aussie taxpayer is paying for his drinks. And I'm happy since he's finally ready to give me a piece of his mind.

"Look," he says, relaxing again, "your people need to understand that in this country if you have money you can do anything. Take Akbar: he got his 50,000, he solved his problem." Little wonder he's not worried to be talking to an Australian agent. I digest this while he draws on his beer. "Plus, do you know what they think of Australia round here?" I shrug. "I'll tell you: After Timor they don't give a f--k about Australia's problems. I know people in the police and military delighted to see you having to deal with this business." So much for Canberra's pleas for regional cooperation. Tareq smiles and drains his glass: "So if your people in Australia think this is going to get better, they're making a big mistake. My guess'd be it's going to get a lot worse." He gives me a parting handshake: "Keep in touch." That's when I decided to use a pseudonym on this story. That way, I live to tell the tale.

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