People-smuggling: driven by demand

Sue Hoffman
The Drum
21 May 2009

There's a commonly-held view that people-smuggling syndicates are Mafia-style hierarchical gangs that engage in other criminal activities like drug and gun running.

Research has shown this isn't necessarily the case; people-smuggling syndicates can also be loose-knit networks operating transnationally and bound by ethnic and family ties; or mum and pop operations more akin to a cottage industry.

The common feature is that they are businesses, with as much variety as is found in other businesses. The people who work for the syndicates play different roles, earn different amounts of money and may be key players or low-level gophers.

Specialist roles include: obtaining false documents; organising the logistics of a journey; being contact points for passengers; liaising with local police or immigration officials; and sourcing vehicles and drivers, vessels and crew. Sometimes these tasks overlap or are handled by one person.

People-smugglers helped Iraqis escape from Saddam Hussein's regime through northern Iraq where smuggling is regarded as reputable a profession as engineering or medicine. It has its origins with the merchants who travelled the Silk Road in the days of the Ottoman Empire.

After the First World War, the region was carved up by the British and French into a medley of colonies, mandates, protectorates and a condominium. The new territorial borders dissected centuries-old trade routes. The merchants continued to trade but were now recast as smugglers.

In the early 1990s, Western governments in particular enacted policies to stem refugee flows. While successful in the short term, the blocking of legal channels for asylum seekers led to significant growth in the size and sophistication of people-smuggling operations.

There's every possibility this will happen again as the people-smuggling industry is driven by demand. Smugglers don't seek out clientele, they don't need to. According to one smuggler based in Indonesia, Middle Eastern refugees paid US$10 just to get his phone number.

Nor do smugglers create the demand for their services. That's down to governments in the source countries, unwilling or unable to protect their own citizens, and in the countries which put up barriers to prevent asylum seekers gaining access.

Some of the people-smugglers operating from Indonesia between 1998 and 2001 enjoyed good reputations amongst the asylum seekers. The smugglers, themselves UNHCR-registered refugees, arranged passages for their own relatives and so had a vested interest in running safe boats.

They gave money to families with sick children and provided free passage to those cheated by other smugglers. Boat passengers have spoken up for people-smugglers in Australian courts of law, along the lines of 'he is a good man, he saved my life'.

Other people-smugglers had no regard for the safety and well-being of their passengers. They lied about the conditions of their boats, overloaded them and didn't supply enough lifejackets, food or water. These boats were typically moored far from the embarkation point. Passengers would be ferried by night in smaller boats to the big boat and wouldn't see its condition until too late. Passengers also reported being forced onto boats at gunpoint.

Deterrent policies targeted at people-smugglers have impacted passenger safety. One example concerns the Indonesian fishermen, paid by smugglers to crew boats which the smugglers chartered or purchased from them. Crews were routinely arrested on arrival in Australia for people-smuggling offences, and until 1999 usually received jail sentences of a few months.

After harsher penalties were introduced that year, there were reports that to avoid capture, crews were getting off the boats close to Australian shores, leaving the asylum seekers to fend for themselves. In addition, juveniles were increasingly used to crew the boats as they would receive lighter sentences if caught.

Further, according to one smuggler, because Australian authorities destroyed the boats after passengers were landed, the smugglers were less able and less inclined to source boats in good condition.

Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) were also introduced as a deterrent but targeted at asylum seekers rather than people-smugglers. TPVs illustrate how poorly-conceived government policy can have dire consequences. They denied access to family reunion programs, which led to increasing numbers of women and children turning to people-smugglers. TPVs were the reason why hundreds of women and children were on board the SIEV X boat when it sank, claiming 353 lives.

As politicians and policy-makers turn their minds again to halting the people-smuggling trade, they should think carefully about the possible consequences. The measure of their success will be not just whether the boats are stopped in the short term, but also the impact upon asylum seekers.

The best way to bring people-smuggling to an end is to offer viable alternatives to asylum seekers. They want to live without the fear of arbitrary detention or forced return to their homeland, in a country where they can work, support their families and see a bright future for their children.


Back to