Sailing for freedom
Matthew Moore & Cynthia Banham
Sydney Morning Herald
26 April 2003

The neighbours are willing to help, but stopping boat people will need money, write Matthew Moore and Cynthia Banham.

For a moment it looked like a flashback in history: boatloads of impoverished Vietnamese steaming towards Australia, risking everything to escape a hardline regime.

When it was revealed two south-bound boats were in Indonesian waters, and that the Indonesian authorities had bent over backwards to help them on their way, there was speculation that our newly constructed Fortress Australia was about to be besieged again.

But this is vastly different from the mid-'70s wave of South-East Asian refugees in craft unfit for harbour work island-hopping over open seas to Australian territory. And it's different from the years leading up to the last federal election when thousands of mainly Afghans and Iraqis made people smugglers rich.

If there is a similarity, it's in the state of the boats - still small, overcrowded, and ready to sink in the first storm.

For the occupants of one of them, the voyage is already over. Theirs was the first of the two boats to set out, leaving Vietnam about March 25 and taking three weeks to make it to Tanjungpinang, in Indonesia's Riau archipelago just south of Singapore.

There, local authorities gave them help with their ailing motor and provided food and fuel, before escorting them back to international waters.

Within days their motor died for good and they were stranded on a tiny island until police towed them to Batam on Thursday night and Indonesian immigration held them in detention.

The other boat might be doing better. It was last seen a week ago in Banjarmasin in south-east Kalimantan, nearly halfway to Australia after about 10 days at sea. It, too, was resupplied before its 42 passengers continued their voyage.

Until these passengers can be fully interviewed, it's hard to know for certain what prompted them to suddenly abandon their lives and friends to try to get to to Australia. But plenty of questions are being asked.

On Monday, Australia will co-host with Indonesia the second and final regional ministerial conference on the subject of people smuggling. It's part of a painstaking process to deliver a regional approach to one of the most vexing global policy issues of the moment: how to maintain the sanctity of borders in an era of increasing people traffic, both legal and illegal. And how to put the stoppers on an industry that is worth upwards of $US10 billion ($16 billion) annually for the big smuggling syndicates.

The conferences are the brainchild of the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, and his Indonesian counterpart, Dr Hassan Wirajuda.

The first meeting saw the establishment of two "ad hoc experts" groups, one chaired by New Zealand, tasked with looking at building regional and international co-operation. The other, headed by Thailand, looked at legislative reform and law enforcement.

This time Australia is sending 30 delegates to the conference in Bali, including Downer, the Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, and the Customs Minister, Chris Ellison.

The Australians will be armed with a few key objectives. Ruddock is due to sign a few more regional memorandums of understanding to bolster Australia's border control policies. The Federal Government wants to see the "plans of action" formed by the expert groups over the last year implemented. And it wants a decision made on a permanent forum to deal with the people smuggling issue in the future, which, according to Department of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) officials, is "very much in flux".

Australia is also taking in a few proposals. They include model legislation criminalising people smuggling - the result of a co- operative effort with China. Australia passed its own laws on people smuggling in December last year. The model laws will be something "which can be taken off the shelf by countries all round the region and made use of", according to one DFAT official.

The "dual criminality" of people smuggling is seen as essential to combating the problem. If Australia, for example, wanted to extradite a person accused of people smuggling, it couldn't unless it also constituted a crime in the country they were being extradited from.

However, Dr Andreas Schloenhardt, from the University of Adelaide law school, maintains that a big problem for Australia is that no matter how tight the anti-people smuggling laws might become in neighbouring countries, they are ineffective if not enforced.

That, says Schloenhardt - who has prepared a paper to be presented by Ruddock at the conference - takes money, something not in abundance among some of Australia's poorer neighbours. Indonesia, in particular.

DFAT agrees there is an imbalance of resources between countries trying to deal with people smuggling, but, said one official, "Obviously we can't finance the budget of other countries. But we can make considerable impact on capacity."

One example is the work being done by Australian authorities with the Thais, teaching them how to recognise fraudulent passports, and facial recognition techniques. The official stressed the importance of Australia's being "very gentle" in how it offers such help.

"We're not trying to impose a blueprint on the region," he says. "But we've got capacity and we've got quite a lot of experience so we are building those sort of linkages ... because as you raise capacity across the region it becomes a lot harder for the easy cases to get through."

A person who has spent a lot of money on getting a very good fraudulent document is going to be very hard to detect, "but you can pick up a large number who've got not such a good document".

Australia has joined Japan and New Zealand in looking at the issue of stolen passports. Customs officials now have recourse to 24-hour passport-checking operations when they come across a questionable document. Not all countries have these resources.

One big lesson Australia has learnt from the last conference and subsequent multilateral work on people smuggling, according to DFAT, is about sensitivities. It has learnt, in other words, how to frame a question in order to obtain specific information "so that person is going to co-operate with you".

"It doesn't relate to religion or ethnic things but it's really building a way of speaking to people so it's going to get good results," says one official.

Intelligence is also important. Much work is being done to ascertain why Vietnamese boats are starting to bob up in the region again.

Ruddock and the Prime Minister, John Howard, have rejected suggestions of a new boat wave, saying there is nothing to suggest that the more notorious boat-smuggling operations are picking up their activities.

Or that there are new pressures from Vietnam and other South-East Asian nations for illegal people flows.

In Jakarta, the chief of mission with the International Office of Migration, Steve Cook, said he was at a loss to explain why the Vietnamese boats had shown up in the archipelago.

Cook said he had spoken to his colleagues in Ho Chi Minh City to see what local factors might have encouraged them. "They were not aware of any push factors," he said. If anything, the economic and political conditions in Vietnam were better now than they'd been for a while.

From the brief talks with his staff who have just met those in detention in Batam, he thought they were simply "looking for better economic opportunities". There did not appear to be people smugglers involved as there have been in the past.

These boats now in Indonesia are two of just three from Vietnam which have tried to get to Australia in the past eight months. Last August a boat with 29 Vietnamese got as far as Madura Island just off Eastern Java before it, too, broke down.

With money from the Australian-Indonesian interception program, set up to discourage such trips, the passengers were transported to a hotel in Situbondo in East Java where most of them remain. They all applied to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for refugee status and, unlike many of the last wave of Vietnamese migrants, all were rejected on the grounds they were not genuine refugees.

A UNHCR protection officer, Tony Garcia, interviewed the group which, he said, was made up of farmers and fishermen who had all lived together in Vietnam. "Economic depression" was the reason they had left. Many had complained about a quota system where they have to produce a certain amount of produce for the Government or be punished.

One of them was on his third attempt to get to Australia. He made it once, was held in detention in Darwin, had been home and bought another boat for a third try. With his refugee status application rejected, and with no passports or other travel documents, he's just taken his wife and child overland and slipped into East Timor for another application for refugee status.

The Riau boatload appears equally determined. Cook said 16 of the 31 have already tried before to flee Vietnam before getting as far as Gulang Island, about 70 kilometres from where they are now. They were sent home last time and they can expect the same fate this time as there is virtually no chance the UNHCR will treat them as refugees.

No one knows whether any more Vietnamese boats are on the way, but if there are they have little more prospect of success that the current ones. If they do make it, they are certain to be held in one of the detention centres while their cases are determined.

But the chances of making it to Australia would seem slight now that the Indonesian Immigration Department has made clear it will be in their way.

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