Despite the spat between Indonesia and Australia over spying allegations and accusations that Jakarta could do more to halt illegal immigration flows, a recent crackdown on people smuggling initiated by the recently elected conservative government in Australia has already had a dramatic impact.
The number of boat arrivals off Australia’s northwest coast has dropped significantly, as have claims for political asylum, even if the black market for illegal travel in Afghanistan is still thriving.
Here, middlemen acting for the likes of Abu Saleh, Abu Visam, Sayed Abbas and Captain Bram are doing a brisk business charging about $25,000 for fake passports, forged visas, and tickets into Southeast Asia or the Middle East, where boats are boarded to Australia, Europe and North America.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Prices have more than doubled since the industry took hold in the late 1990s. However, outlays and the logistical costs needed to bypass international police and immigration authorities have soared, exacting a toll on the bottom line for smugglers, whose business is all about profit.
“It starts here,” says a jeweler and pawn shop operator in Kabul’s famed Chicken Street. “Women often come in and pawn their earrings, rings, bracelets and necklaces. Family heirlooms can get them enough for at least one member of the family to make the trip.”
The voyage is dangerous and the vessels used often unseaworthy. Australian government sources said Saleh was allegedly responsible for one smuggling operation that went dreadfully wrong in September, ending in the deaths of more than 40 people.
Of the others, Captain Bram is a long-term operator based out of Indonesia, while the Australian sources say Abbas has been responsible for 40 separate smuggling attempts into the country over the past five years. Indonesia has refused an Australian extradition request for him. Meanwhile, Abu Vasim recently caused a furor after he refused to hand back money to passengers after several failed attempts to Australia.
These four are blamed for a slew of crimes involving Afghans, Sri Lankans, Iraqis, Iranians, a growing number of Syrians and others usually from the Middle East, prepared to gamble everything on illegal entry into Australia, Canada or Europe where they have been told, wrongly, political asylum awaits.
Reports about less savory elements among the crew and their demands are also emerging. One source from a Western non-governmental organization (NGO) said smugglers were extorting sexual acts from women with threats of not ferrying them to Australia. Hazing and bullying of passengers is common.
One passenger was dumped on an isolated beach after two crewmen placed bets to see who could make him cry first. Many of the crimes go unreported amid fears of retribution.
Typical routes include scheduled flights often through the United Arab Emirates and onto Thailand and Malaysia. In Kuala Lumpur passengers have traditionally transited through the suburb of Chow Kit, while there has been a shift into Bangkok over recent years where the Arab quarter along Sukhumvit is popular.
Both spots boast friendly hotels and cheap restaurants where smugglers can connect with their human cargo, collect more money and carry out final checks for the illegal boat crossing to Indonesia and then Australia. While thousands have made the journey, hundreds – perhaps many more – have been lost.
Authorities readily admit that boats ferrying passengers to Australia have gone missing and case files obtained by The Diplomat provides some insight into the tragedies that have befallen many.
One passenger claimed he had paid in full, the smugglers did not believe him and he was held hostage for more than a month. He was threatened with a needle containing a liquid, hanging and a homemade bomb. He handed over his passport, which was shredded, and he was left stranded.
Another passenger intending to claim asylum worked for seven years in a restaurant and saved $15,000, enough for a down payment on passage to Australia for his family. All were arrested while en-route, the smugglers refused to hand back their money and his family has also been left stranded in Indonesia.
But the biggest factor upsetting the lives of passenger and smuggler alike is the opening by the Australian government of detention centers in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, which is providing alternative destinations as opposed to Australia via Christmas Island.
PNG and Nauru are least developed countries, isolated and offer few prospects. That change in course has resulted passengers pulling out at the last minute and demanding their money back.
“There are enormous financial pressures and the last thing the people smugglers are going to do is give back the fees they charged for Australia to passengers who in future will be redirected to PNG, they’re not that kind of businesspeople,” the Australian government source said.