With friction between Australia and Indonesia continuing to test relations it must have been with some relief in Canberra and Jakarta that an Indonesian court sentenced Javaid Mahmood, a 54-year-old from Pakistan, to seven years in jail for people smuggling.
Mahmood was responsible for initiating a voyage from Indonesia to Australia in June 2012 for about 200 Afghans and Pakistanis hoping to claim political asylum. But the vessel sank soon after the boat left Java, the main island of Indonesia, drowning about 90 people.
An East Jakarta District Court heard Mahmood had caused “the loss of many lives” and fined him an additional 800 million rupiah, or $65,000, in addition to his seven year sentence. Prosecutors had initially sought a 10-year term.
Mahmood was helped by an Afghan, Dawood Amiri, currently serving six years behind bars for other people smuggling offences. Mahmood was also responsible for a second voyage which made it safely to Christmas Island off Australia’s northwest coast in February last year.
His passengers paid between $5,000 and $12,000 for the trip.
The Australian government says boats containing arrivals have dropped to their lowest levels in five years, primarily because of tougher policies instituted following last year’s conservative victory at the polls.
The biggest factor upsetting the lives of smugglers and their cargo 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 in passengers pulling out at the last minute and demanding their money back. This has led to brawls between passengers and smugglers.
From Manus Island – described by one former employee as a dog kennel – and Nauru, illegal immigrants can apply for asylum or residency in a third country. Australia, however, is not an option and the wait for resettlement is fraught with a long list of problems.
Despite this, Indonesia and Malaysia remain major hubs for illegal immigrants seeking a better quality of life and asylum-seekers caught up in years of conflict in South Asia and the Middle East. Their efforts have also been stymied by conservative polices and an Australian navy-led operation.
That includes turning boats back to Indonesia, a policy which has angered Indonesia amid a sharp deterioration in relations between the two countries.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.