Jakarta acts on people smuggling
Tim Dodd in Jakarta
Australian Financial Review
25 February 2002
Indonesia has quietly arrested and deported several people smugglers in an unexpected effort to regain diplomatic credibility before this week's international conference to combat people trafficking.
And in a similar development, Malaysia has restricted visa-free arrival for people from the Middle East and South Asia, curtailing the main route to Australia for many recent illegal immigrants.
Until now the only people smuggler known to have been arrested was the notorious Abu Quassey, who arranged the voyage to Christmas Island in which 353 refugees drowned last November.
But diplomats from countries attending the conference have been told confidentially that some other smugglers had been arrested and deported or held under arrest in Indonesia - the first sign of definitive action by the Indonesian Government to deal with the issue.
People smuggling is not a crime in Indonesia, and some of the smugglers were deported for visa violations, which is one of the few ways in which the Government can legally take action against them.
According to sources familiar with the crackdown, Indonesia did not announced the arrests and deportations possibly because it does not want to appear domestically to be caving in to Australian pressure to take action against the gangs who have profited from shipping people to Australia.
The 30-nation ministerial conference on smuggling, which opens tomorrow night in Bali, will try to find ways to ensure the smuggling and trafficking of people across borders - a problem rife in Asia - is effectively dealt with as criminal activity.
The conference is Indonesia's response to the people-smuggling issue, which caused a crisis in Australian-Indonesian relations last year and focused unfavourable international attention on Indonesia as a country with porous borders and poor law enforcement that allowed smugglers to operate freely.
Indonesia has a big stake in ensuring the conference is a success because it is its first major international initiative since the Soeharto presidency ended nearly four years ago.
The unannounced action on visas by Malaysia, a key participant at the conference, has raised hopes the conference will make progress.
The conference, to be co-chaired by Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Mr Hassan Wirajuda, and his Australian counterpart, Mr Alexander Downer, is not expected to lead to any immediate action to restrict people smuggling. There will be no law-enforcement agreement signed, not even a communique agreed to by all 30 participants from the Asia-Pacific area.
It is intended to open a dialogue on how to criminalise people smuggling and trafficking in the Asia-Pacific. Apart from smuggling of refugees, it will also look at trafficking in people for prostitution and forced labour.
Among key areas recognised for improvement are establishing extradition treaties to include the crimes of people smuggling and people trafficking and tightening up visa-free entry. It is likely to lead to international working parties being established on specific areas.
Mr Downer said yesterday: "I think the best agreements we can reach at this conference are agreements on passing to each other information through intelligence and law-enforcement agencies."
During the Soeharto years, Indonesia was a major diplomatic player in South-East Asia, where it played a leading role in the Association of South-East Asian Nations, and was a key participant in the founding of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum.
But since Soeharto fell, the country's economic and political crisis, together with the international opprobrium attracted by the East Timor crisis, has sharply reduced its international presence.
Indonesia wants to use the event to boost its diplomatic profile and turn the negative publicity that followed from the boat-people drownings into a positive proposal to deal with people smuggling.
Talks between Australia, Indonesia and East Timor will precede the conference.