Boatpeople stranded "in the hands of criminals"
20 January 2002

JAKARTA, Jan 20 (AFP) - Last October Mohammed Daud, one of thousands of asylum-seekers stranded in Indonesia, helped police arrest the people smuggler who charged him 4,000 dollars to dispatch him on four failed boat trips to Australia.

The smuggler, a Pakistani carpet seller known as "Anwar", walked free after paying police 15,000 dollars and is now seeking revenge, claims Daud.

"I was eating ice-cream and playing billiards at Sarinah on New Year's Day," he recounts, referring to the Jakarta mall where people smugglers are known to meet their human contraband.

"Anwar appeared with two Indonesian men. They caught me and threw me into a car and tried to drive off with me. But I smashed the windows and escaped," he says.

Daud, who now lives in fear is convinced Anwar was trying to abduct him. "He knows I was the one who showed him to the police. I approached him in the police station after he was arrested and demanded my 4,000 dollars back," Daud told AFP.

"He just snapped at me and said 'you're costing me a lot of money!'"

In fear Daud is moving from hostel to hostel in Jakarta's budget backpacker strip, where more than 100 mainly Afghan asylum-seekers are lodging while they wait for their refugee applications to be processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Daud's Afghan companions say Anwar regularly prowls the hostel strip, tempting those so fed up with waiting they will risk their lives on flimsy fishing vessels to reach Australia.

Daud's account highlights the vulnerability of the asylum-seekers to unscrupulous and highly-organised people smuggling syndicates.

"They've put themselves in the hands of criminals," says Geoff Raby, the top Australian official at talks in Jakarta last week to prepare for next month's regional ministerial conference in Bali on people-smuggling.

"They've entered illegally so they are illegal immigrants, but we have to ensure they have access to protection."

Protection for asylum-seekers is an issue the UNHCR wants considered at the conference, to which co-hosts Australia and Indonesia have invited 41 countries.

It is an issue which officials from the source Middle Eastern countries, especially Iran, urged attention during Thursday's preparatory talks.

"The asylum-seekers are often very worried about reprisals from their people-smugglers if they share information about them with the police," UNCHR's regional director, Raymond Hall, told AFP.

"It's a very unhappy relationship between an asylum-seeker and his people-smuggler. Asylum-seekers may feel indebted to, resentful of, or fearful of their smugglers. It's a very worrisome relationship."

Daud's account also highlights one of the obstacles to arresting the people smugglers and foiling their trade: the alleged rampant bribery of police and immigration officials by the wealthy smuggling syndicates.

Senior police acknowledge their men have been bought off. "We do not close our eyes to the fact that some of our members have been bribed by people-smugglers," Senior Superintendent Bambang Sampurnajati, of the Indonesian police force's Interpol Bureau, told AFP.

"We've already sacked one police officer for assisting a people smuggler in Lampung last October," he said.

The officer had "prepared the bus" used by a Turkish smuggler known as Abu Quassey to transport 400 Australia-bound asylum-seekers to a waiting fishing vessel in the middle of the night, Sampurnajati said.

About 350 drowned when the boat broke up and sank off the coast of Java.

Survivors alleged that more than a dozen police forced them on to the boat, beating those who tried to get off when they realised the boat's decrepit condition.

The asylum-seekers' fear of reprisals if they identify their people smugglers makes it hard for authorities to prosecute suspects -- a complaint from both Indonesian and Australian officials.

"Assembling the evidence has been a challenge," said Raby. "We've found when we tried to prosecute ... it's very difficult to actually get 'smoking gun' evidence."

Seven people smugglers currently under arrest in Indonesia, including Quassey and his partners, he said.

While the UNHCR knows of 1200 asylum-seekers and around 600 recognised refugees still stuck in Indonesia, Canberra estimates there are up to 5,000 at any one time in the smuggling pipeline.


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