The Lies of People Smuggling

The recent arrest of smuggler Haydar Khani won’t stop the dangerous trade—or the lies that feed it.

In a perfect world the arrest of alleged people smuggler Haydar Khani, alias Ali Hamid, in Indonesia would send a powerful warning message to his peers working out of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. But the reality remains that they’re a brutal lot. To them, business is business.

Khani is probably responsible for at least seven boats making the risky trip from Indonesia to Australia. His most memorable crossing was made in December when at least 30 people died as the craft struck a rock off Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean 2,600 kilometers from Perth, and sank.

The exact number of victims will never be confirmed.

The route taken by the victims wasn’t uncommon: A flight from Tehran to Kuala Lumpur, a boat to Indonesia where they were assessed as cargo by smugglers, allotted a vessel and set off for Australia. Others arrive from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, often through Bangkok.

They are lied to throughout their journey. From the start, they’re told they’ll be welcomed in Australia, where jobs are many and people are few. They’re reassured the boats are seaworthy and enough food and fresh water will be provided for the trip.

Meanwhile, a boat carrying almost 100 people is missing. The passengers were last heard of in mid-November. They later failed to call relatives for the final payment to be made to smugglers and the legal advocacy Social Justice Network in Sydney fears they are dead. Another, believed to be carrying 47 Afghan asylum seekers from Indonesia, exploded and sank near Ashmore Reef in April 2009.

For the last decade, tales of children being thrown overboard, boats set alight and attempted suicides have dominated headlines surrounding asylum seekers.But such stories don’t always make the news pages back home, and so demand continues to rise. Indeed, demand is so high that human smugglers are raising the fees for the trip from the Middle East to Australia by a third. A standard one-way fare is believed to be rising to $15,000 from $10,000.

The money is payable in stages, at the point of exit, on arrival in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur and again in Jakarta before setting off. Final payment is supposedly made after the boat hits Australian waters, where more lies (perhaps the most devious), are often told.

People smugglers need to convince relatives that their kin have safely made it to Australia before they’ll shift the last and biggest payment into their account. So the smugglers have a mobile phone with an Australian SIM card on hand, which registers a signal once the vessel is inside Australian waters. The call is made back home which shows the digits 614—supposed proof that their siblings have made it.

But the call is made before the boat has reached a customs point. In some cases, people have never been heard from again amid fears that food, water or fuel had run out. Perhaps they drowned as boats sank.

Rumours on the streets of Chow Kit, a suburb and popular mid-point destination in Kuala Lumpur for smugglers and their cargo, are that people are thrown overboard if supplies are running short. It’s an unsavoury thought. But business is business, they say.

Relatives who pay the final sum but don’t hear from their kin make inquiries and are told through the smugglers network that their loved ones were in the Australian immigration system, being processed at Christmas Island and the job was done. It's about as true as much of what else they've been told.