Man behind the people trade

By Don Greenlees - Jakarta correspondent
The Weekend Australian
SAT 01 SEP 2001

HE goes by various aliases and has worked hard at keeping a low profile in the competitive world of people-smuggling. Authorities know little about him, other than the fact he is Pakistani.

But Abdul Punjabi, otherwise known as Achmad Punjabi and Achmad Pakistani, is suddenly stirring a lot of interest among fellow people-smugglers and the authorities that monitor them.

He is the principal figure responsible for the human cargo now on board the Tampa, the biggest single shipment of asylum-seekers to reach Australian waters.

In partnership with as many as three others, Punjabi organised the 460 on to the unseaworthy fishing vessel that was supposed to land them on Christmas Island.

Although authorities have only sketchy information on Punjabi, he has a growing reputation among Afghan refugees in Jakarta awaiting permanent asylum in another country.

'He is the main man,' said one Afghani, who has already been granted refugee status by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Described by refugees as in his late 30s and fat, Punjabi is nonetheless dapper. He always wears a suit and tie, and has a well-groomed moustache. He is married to an Indonesian, moves back and forth between Jakarta and Singapore, and runs a carpet business when he is not smuggling people.

During the two years that refugees say Punjabi has been in the smuggling trade, he has taken care to ensure his name has not been directly associated with the transport of large numbers of illegal entrants to Australia by boat. That business has been dominated by two other main syndicates that have divided their operations between the western and eastern parts of the archipelago.

Government officials say Punjabi has been better known for smuggling people on commercial airlines, particularly to the US. It is a more complex business requiring the manufacture of false travel documents. And, per passenger, it is more lucrative than sending would-be migrants by boat.

But for making quick money, it is hard to compete with the big numbers of people that can be squeezed on to a cheap and unsafe fishing vessel. Officials estimate those on board the Tampa would have parted with an average of $5000 each, earning the smugglers $2.1million.

Most of the passengers whom Punjabi recruited for the vessel are Afghans fleeing persecution by the Taliban. A large proportion are also economic migrants from Pakistan who intended to pass themselves off to Australian Immigration officials as Afghans.

As many as 35 per cent of the asylum-seekers coming to Australia who claim to be Afghan are in fact from Pakistan.

These Pakistanis have so far had considerable success in convincing authorities they are entitled to refugee status as victims of the conflict in Afghanistan.

The passengers on the Tampa will not have that chance. Their money spent, they languish at sea.

One man, however, is a winner. Punjabi has probably made the biggest windfall of his career, although his colleagues in the people-smuggling business won't thank him. The unwanted attention generated by the Tampa fiasco has forced them to put their activities on hold. Punjabi may turn out to be wanted by more people than just the police.

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