The People Smugglers: Six men rule the trade in humans
By Megan Saunders
The Australian
31 August 2001

SIX ringleaders control the people-smuggling trade from Indonesia, running increasingly sophisticated operations that have Australian authorities struggling to keep pace.

As recently as two years ago, operations were so amateurish that one boat's crew landed on Roti Island, southwest of Timor, thinking it was Australia.

It's a different story today. Those who control the trade issue special identification cards and deal with boatpeople in lots of 300.

They are even taking Pakistanis into Afghanistan and coaching them on how to lie about being persecuted by the Taliban.

'When they first started out in 1999, they weren't very good at it,' a government source said.

'They would lose whole busloads of passengers on the way to boats in the middle of the night, just take a wrong turn.'

Now the group of six, their lieutenants and henchmen are making millions in smuggling human cargo.

They vary in ability but are prolific in their recruiting of boatpeople, according to sources who spoke to The Australian yesterday. On the one hand you have smuggler Hasan Ayoub, a man authorities describe as a prolific but clumsy operator who recently got sprung in Cambodia loading an unseaworthy boat with 300 people.

At the other end of the scale there is Kais Abdul Al Rahim Asfoor, a man sources describe as one of the most effective operators around.

So brazen is this operator that he recently rang up an Australian radio station declaring he was a people-smuggler for humanitarian reasons, operating for the good of his brethren. Not so, say Australian authorities, who insisted yesterday he was in it just for the money. Asfoor is known to have made $25million moving more than 2000 people to Australia on 20 boats -- money that is believed to be in secret accounts outside Indonesia.

'He's one of the most professional, organised, experienced and cocky people-smugglers operating in Indonesia at the moment,' a source said.

The ringleaders are an argumentative mob, authorities say, forging and breaking alliances continually, as it suits them. The stricken vessel that carried the people who are now on board the Tampa, for instance, was organised when two people-smugglers and two of their lieutenants came together.

When the operations began to gather momentum in early 1999, illegal immigrants were generally paying between $US5000 ($9400) and $US15,000 for passage from the Middle East.

Now, as the trade grows and the boats get bigger, they can pay as little as between $US800 and $US1500 if they make their own way to Indonesia to board the boats.

Australian authorities, however, say they are increasingly concerned about the safety of boatpeople because smugglers use unseaworthy vessels.

'The boats are not in good shape,' the source said. 'People are put on vessels where there are no life rafts, there are no life jackets. This is really desperate stuff.'

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