People who move people
The Weekend Australian
23 June 2001
There's big money in human traffic. Don Greenlees unmasks the men who organise the boats
WEARY of financial hardship and persecution by religious zealots, Mohammad Hassan Mirzai scratched together all the money he could, left his wife and five children and caught a bus from the Afghan capital, Kabul, to a freewheeling Pakistani border town in search of a people smuggler.
That was on March 15 last year. Since then, Mirzai has parted with $12,000 and travelled through three countries in a failed attempt to board a boat to illegally enter Australia. After 14 months, his journey to a safer, more prosperous life has now stalled in Indonesia. He languishes in a crowded house in Jakarta with other lost Afghan men, subsisting on a monthly handout of a little less than $100 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Mirzai, 42, has not heard from his family since he left home. The Russian-trained television and radio engineer looks sullen and lonely as he explains in broken English how his hopes of making it to Australia evaporated when he and 17 other escapees from Afghanistan were arrested by Indonesian police in Bali a year ago.
Their people smuggling contact, a man calling himself Abu Jaffar, took their passports and promised to be back to put them on a boat. They never saw him again.
'They are all liars,' says Mirzai. 'They are robbers.' Although Mirzai ended short of his destination, the UNHCR granted refugee status to the Afghans in his group. For six months they have been stateless -- no passports and no country ready to accept them. But the group has heard about Australia's detention camps for illegal immigrants and decided to wait for an official solution.
Mirzai's housemate Mohammad Sharif Hassanin says the group decided not to try to reach Australia themselves because it would only make their problem worse.
But thousands of others are taking their chances. More than 11,500 boat people have successfully made the trip south since 1989, reaping tens of millions of dollars in profits for the smuggling ring bosses.
People smuggling is the world's third biggest commodity-based form of organised crime, after arms and drug trafficking. The trade is an especially serious concern for Australia because its borders are difficult to police and it is close to regions of internal conflict and hardship.
In the past two years, 7600 people have illegally entered Australia by boat, nearly all Afghan or Middle Eastern migrants coming through Indonesia. A big reservoir of people -- some estimate as many as 3000 -- is now in Indonesia and Malaysia, waiting to come.
Despite a more intense interdiction effort, Indonesian and Australian authorities are scrambling to keep up with the boat departures, sometimes acting on tip-offs that give them only a few hours to react. Most boats still reach Australian waters. Indonesian police and Australian officials say they have watched in recent months as the people smuggling syndicates have put in place progressively more elaborate strategies.
Smugglers' incentives are strong. One Indonesian-based smuggler is estimated to have earned $40 million in just a few years. 'They are learning and taking on the same traits as their narcotic smuggling counterparts,' says one government official. 'We put up measures and they counter-measure. We pay money and they pay more.'
Indonesian police intelligence reports have identified 22 principal figures running the trade. But two main syndicates and a handful of individuals appear to be dominating the business, running separate operations covering the western and eastern archipelago.
On the western side, operating out of Jakarta, is a group headed by Hasan Ayoub, a Pakistani or Afghan travelling on false papers, and Sayeed Omeid, a Kurd also using fake travel documents.
The two have controlled boat departures through West Java and South Sumatra, and it is believed that until a week ago they were behind every boat arriving at Christmas Island. They have sent at least three vessels carrying 525 people so far this year.
Competition among smugglers has been more intense in the eastern archipelago. The biggest syndicate, responsible for about half the boats to depart this year, is run by two Iraqis, Majid Mahmood and Kais Abdul Asfoor Al Rahim, recognised by the UNHCR as refugees in 1998, and an Arabic-speaking Indonesian who calls himself Ahmed Olong -- the man who led Mirzai astray under the name Abu Jaffar
The syndicate has maintained a steady flow of boats from the eastern islands since 1999, seeking landfall on Ashmore Reef in north-western Australia. This group organised the biggest boat to arrive in Australia, the Adelong, which carried 355 people to Ashmore Reef in November 1999.
Although Indonesian police have lists of the syndicate bosses, they blame a lack of legal power, a weak appreciation of this type of criminal activity and poor co-operation between agencies for the failure to make arrests. Some ringleaders have been arrested and deported, only to return on false documents and resume their activities.
The head of the Indonesian police Interpol branch, Brigadier Dadang Garnida, concedes: 'It is not easy to make arrests; not everyone has the same perception of the problem.'
A 1997 memorandum of understanding signed by the Indonesian national police and the Australian Federal Police substantially boosted policing, leading to the establishment of a special Indonesian people smuggling team, funded by Australia.
Its establishment has not stopped a sharp rise in the number of illegal arrivals from Indonesia in the past two years, but it has had some notable successes. In February last year, Indonesian police acting on a tip-off from Australia busted plans for the biggest boatload of illegal migrants, only days before the planned departure. It would have contained 700 people and earned the smugglers as much as $7 million, according to police.
Police have blocked the departure of more than 1000 people since January. The biggest successes have been in the eastern islands, where police have forced smugglers to virtually abandon Kupang, in West Timor, as a departure point.
But as the syndicates come under pressure, they will go to great lengths to protect their business. One Australian immigration official who made too many inquiries returned home from Jakarta after facing death threats. Authorities have no doubt the smugglers are capable of violence. In an assessment given to Indonesian police, Australian immigration officials claim one Iraqi smuggler, who himself boarded a boat to Australia, was a member of a Saddam Hussein execution squad.
Smugglers have also put in place elaborate arrangements to disguise and facilitate their activities. A number of Middle Eastern carpet shops in Jakarta have become fronts for the more lucrative trade in people. The wheels of these increasingly slick operations are greased by pay-offs to immigration, local government and police officials.
A recent surveillance operation in West Java saw local government officials stopping traffic to wave through tour buses operated by smugglers, heading for a large port. Departure was stopped, but police often find their usual grounds for arrests -- lack of valid visas and passports -- is being defeated by better quality forgeries.
And there are concerns the trade in people is encouraging other organised crime. For poor would-be migrants, drugs offer an easy way to raise the smugglers' exorbitant fees. At least one Jakarta people smuggler is known to have links to narcotics traffickers. Police, buoyed by their success in shutting down Kupang, hope continued disruption may make the business unprofitable. There are signs smugglers in the eastern islands are looking at shifting operations because of increased police activity. But one thing isn't in decline: the demand for the smugglers' services. 'Many men want to follow me from my village,' says Afghan refugee Hassanin. 'They are sick of the problems. It's not just me, but all Afghan refugees -- we look for a safe country.'
Don Greenlees is The Australian's Jakarta correspondent
Syndicate of broken lives