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PEOPLE SMUGGLING

The Crime of Flight

Criminal syndicates are turning from smuggling drugs to smuggling people, and governments and law-enforcement agencies are anxious to stop the flow.

By Bertil Lintner/ JAKARTA, BANGKOK AND CANBERRA

ABDUL KADIR FLED Afghanistan with his cousin two years ago, when he was 19 years old. He could no longer stand the oppressive Taliban regime, he says, especially its dreaded Department of the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the "religious police" who punished men who didn't pray five times a day or sport a beard and a black turban.

The cousins weren't ordinary refugees. Abdul's father was already waiting for them in Sydney, where he had been granted temporary asylum. And, rather than joining the many impoverished refugees in crowded border camps, they simply boarded a bus from Kabul to Karachi with over $10,000 in their luggage--a staggering sum for most Afghans.

Once in Pakistan they came into contact with one of the many agents there who promise passage to Australia. They paid the agent $5,000 each to provide them with valid Afghan passports and escort them into a regionwide criminal network that would transport them, shielded from the law, all the way to the Australian shore.

The cousins had entered the realm of what a European intelligence report says is "probably the most serious development in transnational crime within the last 10 years"--people smuggling. Abdul is one of approximately one million people smuggled each year by businessmen with links across the globe who illegally transport asylum seekers from the developing world into the developed.

Many of these refugees pause along their journeys in various Asian capitals, including Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Jakarta, where they can rest in safe houses and obtain new false documents before being escorted onwards.

The fact that refugees are able to take a safe pause in their travels in these capitals has been cause for criticism from the governments that must later look after the refugees--particularly Australia--and law-enforcement agencies that believe that income from the trade supports other criminal activities. So it is no surprise that authorities are anxious to stop the flow.

PUSHING ASIA TO DO MORE

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe held a June meeting in Bangkok to stress that people smuggling is a problem that Asia must do more to combat. At the meeting, the OSCE reported that many smugglers are turning to trafficking in human beings rather than drugs. One reason is the potential for profit: The European intelligence report says the smuggling gangs earn at least $7 billion per year from their trade. Another reason: Smuggling people is much less risky than smuggling drugs or guns. "If you get caught, you don't risk capital punishment. But in terms of money, it's right up there with drug smuggling and other illegal activities," says Richard Danziger, head of the Jakarta office of the International Organization for Migration, or IOM. There's so much money to be made that, as with drug trafficking, international law-enforcement efforts do little to deter the trade.

Abdul's own story shows how well-spread the network of contacts is. Soon after arriving in Karachi in 2000, he and his cousin began the journey to Australia as any other traveller might: by air to Kuala Lumpur. They passed through immigration easily because holders of passports from Muslim countries could then enter Malaysia without visas. (Since September 11, some now require a letter of introduction.)

An agent met the pair at the airport and drove them to a safe house in the city, where 14 other Afghans were staying. After several days, the group left for the coast. A small boat took them across the Malacca Strait to Sumatra. The Afghans entered Indonesia illegally, with members of the smuggling syndicate at hand to bribe officials and to help them with the onward journey.

They flew from Medan in northern Sumatra to Jakarta. There, another member of the gang took the entire party to the bus station, and by the next morning they were in Surabaya, where a decrepit, barely seaworthy fishing boat was waiting. "I counted 141 people on board. All of us were Afghans. I thought the boat was going to sink," Abdul says.

Other boats have done just that. Nauroz Ali, a 28-year-old Afghan, survived another shipwreck in August. "Our boat was meant to carry only 40 people, but we were 139 on board," he says. "At midnight, out in the open sea, our boat began to leak. The owner then left in a small boat, saying he would look for help. But he just ran away. We never saw him again." Only 30 people from Nauroz's boat survived. In a more widely publicized incident last October, 353 people drowned when their ship sank in the sea between Indonesia and Australia.

THE LONG DEBATE: WHO IS A REFUGEE?

The main international agreement that is supposed to provide the framework for the treatment of asylum seekers is the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention, drawn up in the aftermath of World War II.

The main question is: Who is a genuine refugee and who is just taking advantage of the system to get asylum? The agreement protects victims of political and religious persecution, and refugees know it. An American immigration official recalls interviewing an asylum seeker from China who claimed to a Christian, and feared for his life if he was sent back. When the officer asked him how Jesus died, the asylum seeker replied: "The communists shot him with a machine-gun."

In 1951, it was a lot clearer who was a refugee and who was not. "The situation today is far more complex. Perhaps the time has come to revise the convention and bring it up to date," says a Southeast Asia-based Western diplomat, who insisted on anonymity.

Revisions could include stricter screening, a tighter system and no automatic granting of asylum just because a refugee has left an oppressive country. But any attempt to revise the 1951 convention is bound to meet stiff resistance. Requests sent by e-mail to Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock for comments on the suggestion that it should be revised were not answered. Indrika Ratwatte from the UNHCR in Bangkok insists that "the fundamentals [of the 1951 convention] are still valid."

By that time Australia had adopted a new, hardline refugee policy. That August the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa rescued 438 refugees, most of them Afghans and Iraqis, from a sinking boat in the Indian Ocean south of Java. When the Tampa tried to deliver the refugees to Australia's Christmas Island, the authorities barred the ship from docking and sent the asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific island of Nauru. Warships continue to patrol the sea north of Australia to deter smugglers and repel refugee boats.

Miraculously, Abdul's boat didn't sink. But it didn't make it to Australia either. After 14 days in rough seas out of Surabaya, they had to turn back. They landed on Indonesia's Sumba island, where they tried to repair the boat. After several months, they set out for Kupang, West Timor, a staging point just 24 hours' sailing from Australia's unpopulated Ashmore Islands, often a landing point for asylum seekers. But for reasons unknown to Abdul and his friends, the Indonesian police were out in force. The migrants finally gave up.

Abdul Kadir now lives in a guest house in Jakarta's Jalan Jaksa, an old haven for backpackers which has been taken over by asylum seekers mainly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. He, his cousin and Nauroz are under the care of the IOM, an intergovernmental outfit with 93 member states that often coordinates its efforts with the United Nations. The IOM is supporting about 900 refugees in Jakarta, putting them up in low-cost guest houses, giving them pocket money and an identification card and offering them assistance to go back home.

Since the fall of the Taliban regime, the IOM has arranged for several hundred Afghans to return. In late April, Afghan Minister of Refugees and Repatriation Intayatullah Nazeri visited Indonesia, urging his countrymen to return, which many have done.

But Abdul, with a mobile phone, an e-mail account, fluency in English and money to spend, is just as likely to find his way to another country as he is to return home. Word on the street in Jalan Jaksa has it that passage to Europe can be arranged for $7,000, including air tickets and a vast array of documentation. U.S. immigration officials have detected a similar pipeline operating from Indonesia to North America, via Mexico.

Abdul agreed to talk only if his identity was protected (Abdul Kadir is not his real name), for fear of the smugglers on whom his future depends if he does not wish to return to Afghanistan. "Those people smugglers are vicious people. I hate them. They cheated me and put my life in danger," Abdul said in an interview at Pappa Café, a popular Jalan Jaksa hang-out. After his first interview he became elusive, and turned off his mobile phone.

Indonesia is less worried than Australia is about people like Abdul. In 1998-99, 42 boats carrying 921 asylum seekers arrived on Australian shores. The following year, there were 75 boats carrying 4,175 people. In the year to June 30, 2001, 54 boats with 4,141 asylum seekers arrived, as smugglers began to invest in larger vessels.

Indonesia complains that it must also deal with its own internally displaced people. But under pressure, the Indonesians have begun to crack down on the syndicates. In November, 2001, they arrested Abu Quassey, an Egyptian using a Turkish passport who is the alleged leader of the gang that had arranged the boat that sank last October. But Indonesia has no law against people smuggling, so Quassey would face prosecution only for entering the country illegally.

Leaders of other rings have been detained and released or have left the country. According to Abdul and other "irregular migrants," as they are called by the IOM, the crackdown in Jakarta has crippled the Indonesian arms of the smuggling syndicates. But some, such as those offering flights to Europe, are still functioning. The migrants say there are five major smuggling rings: three operating in Jakarta, one in Medan and one on Sumba and other eastern islands.

The leader of the gang that Abdul Kadir used is called Shahid Ali, a Pakistani who has been an Indonesian resident for many years. "He left when things got hot here," says Abdul. "I know that he is in Bangladesh now, probably doing the same thing." Several of his colleagues are still in Jakarta, offering potential asylum seekers other ways out.

On June 23, Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said there are around 1,000 asylum seekers in Indonesia searching for smugglers to bring them to other countries. An additional 900 are supported by the IOM, and 760 have been accepted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, for resettlement to third countries.

Most new arrivals are Iraqis--and, given the repressive nature of their government, they cannot be turned away. "If given an opportunity, most people would leave. They want to be free," says Fuad Kadhim, a 31-year-old from Iraq who is now living in Jakarta. Fuad has been recognized as a refugee by the UNHCR and promised resettlement in Australia, but has been in Jakarta for two years waiting for the bureaucracy to usher him through.

It's not only Australia that has tightened its immigration and asylum rules. At a European Union summit in Seville, Spain, in June, illegal migration was at the top of the agenda. Several European countries have introduced new legislation to curb the flow of asylum seekers, in part as a response to growing xenophobia that has led to the emergence of maverick populist parties, as has happened in Australia.

But all businesses find new solutions to new challenges. As long as there is money to be made from people who are seeking greener pastures outside their own countries, people smugglers will continue to sell their services throughout Asia, from the streets of Karachi to the guest houses of Jalan Jaksa.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, July 18, 2002

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