Turning tide traps people-smugglers
By Don Greenlees, Kimina Lyall
The Weekend Australian
27 April 2002

No one is claiming victory just yet but as Don Greenlees and Kimina Lyall write, co-operation is making life hard for people- smugglers

AHMED Hasan joined the immigration queue at Bangkok airport on the night of Thursday, April 18, with what must have been a familiar sense of unease.

When he reached the counter, he handed across a Moroccan passport that had been skilfully altered to place his own identity photograph above the name El Mostafa Sherradi.

It was not the first time Hasan had been through an international checkpoint with false documents but, after last September's terrorist attacks in the US, the risks of closer scrutiny, and hence detection, had dramatically grown.

Thai immigration saw the irregularity and Hasan was taken into custody.

Within two days, the 32-year-old Iraqi had faced court and was sentenced to two months in prison. But the case against Hasan is more than a simple matter of passport fraud. He is a man of great interest to Australian authorities.

To the Australian Federal Police and the Immigration Department, Hasan is known as Ali Jenabi, a successful member of the fraternity of Indonesian-based people-smugglers. In the two years he had been in business, police and immigration officials estimated he had moved at least five boats of asylum-seekers to Australia, containing a few hundred people.

Behind bars in Bangkok, Hasan (the name he gave to Thai authorities) joined another important people-smuggler, Pakistani Hasan Ayoub, in Thai custody since late last year. Both Hasan and Ayoub now face the prospect of extradition to Australia to stand trial over people-smuggling -- and the possibility of a 20-year jail term.

Thai officials said Ayoub would go before an extradition hearing in the Bangkok Criminal Court on May 21. Australian authorities are yet to lodge a request for the extradition of Hasan. Hasan and Ayoub have added their names to a long list of people- smugglers to be either put out of business or who have ended up in police custody since late last year.

Although diplomats and police say it is premature to claim victory against people-smugglers, the intelligence charts used last year to map out the smugglers' networks now show gaping holes.

In Indonesia, two important ringleaders are in police detention: Anwar Shazad, arrested in Kupang, West Timor, two months ago on charges of carrying a concealed pistol, and Abu Quessay, the organiser of a vessel that sank in the Sunda Strait last October with the loss of 353 asylum-seekers.

Another important detainee is Kais Abdul al-Rahim Asfoor, allegedly one of the most prolific Indonesian-based smugglers, now awaiting trial in Perth.

Court documents state he was responsible for smuggling 1098 people into Australia on 17 boats between June 1999 and March this year.

In jail with these men are a number of their assistants in the smuggling business. When Thai immigration officials arrested Ahmed Hasan at Bangkok airport, they also detained his travelling companion, a 24-year-old Iraqi man using a false Yemeni passport. Moreover, refugee agencies and police in Indonesia say all the former associates and partners of the syndicate bosses now in custody have decided it is wise to lie low. One prominent smuggler, who variously goes by the name of Achmad Pakistani and Abdul Punjabi, has returned to Pakistan to marry and may have fled the business. Asylum-seekers have named him as the man who organised the refugee boat Palapa, which precipitated the Tampa crisis.

'The smugglers are simply keeping a pretty low profile,' says Richard Danziger, of the International Office of Migration. 'A few months ago, they were around the place and we would know where such-and-such a smuggler was. Now we don't hear about them.'

Three important smugglers remain at large in Indonesia -- Majid Mahmood, the former partner of fellow Iraqi Asfoor; Sayeed Omeid, a Kurd who was Ayoub's partner; and an Arabic-speaking Indonesian, Achmed Olong.

The syndicates these men ran were responsible for the majority of boats leaving Indonesia until last year. But the arrests of their colleagues, and the deterrence measures to prevent boats from landing in Australia, have clearly had a salutary effect. Since the Tampa crisis last September, no asylum-seeker has illegally entered Australia by the well-charted sea route from Indonesia. Since December, no boat has tried.

Australian officials monitoring illegal immigration have put the changed environment down to a string of factors. One of the most significant has been the deterrence established by Australia, including increased maritime surveillance, changes to the immigration law, the use of detention on Pacific islands and the forced return of some boats to Indonesian waters.

Other important factors include an extended period of unusually bad weather and the greater effectiveness of regional police efforts to disrupt the operations of the smugglers' networks. One diplomat said: 'The organisers are getting banged up. Immigration and police are detaining some of them on other crimes. They are also having some of their passengers end up back in Indonesia. It puts a lot of pressure on them, because passengers demand refunds.'

The tougher conditions are seen in the roll call at the UN High Commission for Refugees office in Jakarta. In 2001, an average 200 asylum-seekers came through the door every month asking to be formally recognised as refugees. Since last December, the numbers have collapsed.

The numbers for April are typical of the past few months: just 20 new applications. Fewer arrivals have been noted coming from the Middle East and Central Asia via Malaysia, the common route for asylum-seekers.

Officials believe among the contributors are new Malaysian immigration restrictions and the end of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.

UNHCR Jakarta director Bob White said: 'There certainly has been a decrease in the numbers, but I want to be careful. We have to wait a bit longer to see if it's a permanent decrease.'

The UNHCR still faces a substantial backlog of refugee cases -- people who could be tempted on to a boat if conditions change. The agency has 986 people on its books awaiting assessment for refugee status.

A further 508 people have been recognised, although they can face years of waiting to be accepted by one of the few countries with a refugee immigration program.

The continued existence of potential customers for smuggling rings means Canberra still attaches a high priority to gaining Indonesian support for countermeasures. And, despite the public exchange of terse words over the issue last year, there are signs of some progress being made.

At a workshop on legal co-operation this month, a senior official from the Indonesian Ministry of Justice mapped out plans for anti-people-smuggling laws, which could go to parliament before the end of the year. Importantly, this would allow the inclusion of people-smuggling on the list of extraditable offences.

Officials say they have also noticed a marked improvement in the effectiveness of police co-operation since the transnational crime summit jointly hosted by Indonesia and Australia in Bali in February. The AFP is planning to increase the number of Jakarta- based agents from two to six in the course of the next few months.

'We had a bit of a low point last year,' said one senior official, who requested anonymity. 'But since Bali we have come back a long way.'

But the official cautioned that the solutions would require a long-term commitment.

'It's right to declare progress, but too early to claim victory,' he said. 'This might have to be a permanent defence.'

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