Saturday, 4 November 2017

The People Smuggler

People smugglers are the comic book villains of Australian asylum seeker policy.  When he was Prime Minister in 2009, Kevin Rudd described them this way in the wake of a tragic event on an asylum seeker boat.

People smugglers are engaged in the world's most evil trade and they should all rot in jail because they represent the absolute scum of the earth.  People smugglers are the vilest form of human life. They trade on the tragedy of others and that's why they should rot in jail and in my own view, rot in hell.

Yet people smuggling has not always had such bad press.  As young Christians we were encouraged to read the inspiring story of Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch woman who was imprisoned by the Nazis for smuggling Jews out of the country.  Later we all heard about Oskar Schindler, the wealthy German industrialist who used his right to Jewish slave labour as a cover for an operation which smuggled some 50,000 Jews out of Poland.

In even more recent history Betty Mahmoody's memoir Not Without My Daughter documented her experience of being trapped inside post-revolutionary Iran in an abusive marriage, with her husband and his family using their daughter as a bargaining chip.  The story's happy ending was achieved, surprise surprise, with the aid of a people smuggler who got her out of Iran after all her attempts to depart legally - including seeking aid from the US embassy - were thwarted.

So I have always suspected that the rhetoric was, at least, a little overblown.  It seems convenient that as well as demonising refugees (a limited tactic since most of us know some actual refugees) we can also demonise a rather shadowy, invisible and poorly understood group of people.  But actual details are always sketchy.  Who are these criminal masterminds?  How do they live?  How does their business work?

You can learn a lot about it by reading Robin de Crespigny's 2012 book The People Smuggler, the life story of Iraqi refugee and people smuggler Ali al Jenabi.  The story, written by de Crespigny in Ali's voice, is based on extensive interviews with the man himself.

 Ali was born in 1970 in the Iraqi town of Diwaniyah, the oldest son of Shiite parents and big brother to a large troop of siblings.  He has memories of a happy childhood but things changed in 1981 when his father was arrested by the Baathist regime for saying 'Saddam is a bastard'.  After nine months of torture he was returned to the family a broken man, and Ali at the tender age of 12 had to take up the responsibility of helping to feed his family as well as living with his father's drunken rages.

Things might have worked out OK in the long run, but in 1991 his brother deserted from the Iraqi military in the midst of the failed Shiite uprising and Ali himself was arrested along with his brother and father.  He was forced to witness his bother's torture as the secret police tried to force him to reveal the names of their non-existent resistance cell.  His brother was presumably tortured to death but Ali survived several years in a crowded cell in Abu Ghraib prison before being finally released and advised in veiled terms to leave the country.

He managed to make it to Kurdistan where he joined a resistance organisation and spent some time sneaking back into Iraq with false ID on various espionage assignments. After a while his next two brothers were also arrested and he arranged for his mother and younger siblings to be be smuggled across the border with him into Kurdistan.  Thus began their long journey as refugees.  First they crossed the border into Iran, where they remained for some years.  Here they applied to be registered as refugees via the UNHCR office in Syria but were refused.  How do these decisions get made?  With one brother missing presumed executed and a father and two brothers held as political prisoners by the Baathist regime, how was it possibly safe for them to return?

They struggled on for some years in Iran, and Ali's oldest sister even managed to make her way to Australia after marrying an Australian resident.  As the situation in Iran deteriorated they finally decided to try and make their own way to join her.  As so often happens, Ali was sent first with the idea that once safely in Australia he would be able to raise the funds to bring his family after him.  He managed to follow the smuggling trail to Indonesia, but there he found himself stuck when the smuggler who had promised to put him on a boat took his money, but then left him stranded on the beach.

The trouble with people smuggling is that, like any black market transaction, there is no quality assurance.  There is no consumer law, there are no police to appeal to.  If you don't get what you paid for you just have to suck it up.  If you can find the person who took your money the chances are they won't return it unless you are accompanied by a group of strong men.  And as we all know, being stranded on the beach is not your biggest quality risk.  There is a lot of temptation for the smuggler to cut corners, buying a cheap boat, overloading it and crewing it with people who don't know what they are doing.  As a result, far too many people have drowned on the passage from Indonesia to Australia.

Having seen this trade, Ali saw an opportunity.  As father figure to a tribe of young siblings, he found himself disgusted at the willingness of the smugglers he encountered to put families at risk and to rip off vulnerable people.  He was sure he could do better, getting people safely to Australia for a fair price.  The income would allow him to pay for his own family's passage.

People smuggling is not simple.  To bring asylum seekers from Iran to Australia requires contacts along the way who can supply false passports and visas, arrange flights and hotels and pay off police and immigration officials.  At the Indonesian end you need to find a seaworthy boat and a crew who know what they're doing, and a departure point where the local police will be prepared to take a bribe in exchange for turning a blind eye.

His first attempt was a fiasco as the boat ended up running ashore in Indonesian territory and its passengers were taken into immigration detention.  He learned as he went along and later ventures were more successful.  In the end he managed to transport around 500 people to Australia via Ashmore Reef.  He even managed to take many of the people from his failed first attempt, breaking them out of detention and getting them out to sea before they could be caught.  He charged them what they could afford - on average around $1,500US per person, but at times he let people go for less.  Sometimes he accepted IOUs even though he knew there was a good chance they would never be paid, and he often let women and children go free.

None of his customers drowned, because he bought seaworthy boats and sent them through calm seas to Ashmore Reef.  In the process he didn't get rich - he made nothing on some of the trips, between buying the boats, paying hotels, paying off the police and funding fake passports to get people into Indonesia.  However, he did earn enough to get all his surviving family members, apart from his father, from Iran through to Australia, and also to buy a house for himself and his Indonesian wife and daughter.

Of course it couldn't last.  The Australian police, under pressure from the government, were on his tail and this made it harder for his Indonesian contacts to turn a blind eye.  Once the Howard Government implemented the first version of the Pacific Solution the game was up anyway.  His family were safely in Australia and granted refugee status, while he was left in Indonesia, wanted by Australian authorities and torn between his mother and siblings in Australia and his wife and daughter in Indonesia.

He was reasonably safe in Indonesia, where the Indonesian authorities had little interest in his arrest and no extradition treaty with Australia.  However he also had no way of making a living, and he was eventually enticed to Thailand by a business opportunity, arrested at the Bangkok airport and extradited to Australia to face people smuggling charges.

Of course he was guilty, and after a long period in remand and a long and complex trial he was convicted.  But the court accepted that he dealt honestly with his customers, that no-one drowned on his watch, and that he was motivated by the wellbeing of his own family.  In the end between Thailand and Australia he spent less than five years in prison where he could have been given twenty or more.

However in 21st century Australia you can be punished more severely for being an undocumented refugee than for being an actual criminal.  On his release he was met at the prison door by immigration officials who tried to persuade him to sign a form agreeing to be deported to Iraq.  Instead he applied for asylum and was sent to Villawood detention centre.  At least he was close to his family, who lived nearby and could visit every day.  But despite the law requiring a decision on his application within 90 days, he waited a year and a half for his refusal and another year and a half to be released, on a Removal Pending Bridging Visa.  He is still on it in 2017.  He is to be deported to Iraq 'when it is safe to do so'.  Which will be never.

In the meantime he has no status.  His Indonesian wife divorced him while he was still in immigration detention because without an Indonesian father their daughter can't attend school.  His daughter is not even allowed to travel to Australia on a tourist visa to visit him, and he hasn't seen her in more than a decade.  Not only that, but when he discovered that his childhood sweetheart, who he assumed was long ago married to someone else, had in fact braved abuse from her family to wait for him there was no way he could bring her to Australia.  He can't make any plans, he can't go anywhere, every day is a new 24 hours of waiting.  All this despite discovering that within his original 90 day period his case officer had found him to be a genuine refugee and recommended he be given protection.

The irony cuts deep.  The 500 people he brought to Australia - including his own family - have refugee status and are getting on with their lives.  Many of them visit him.  One of them is a doctor and treated him in hospital.  Yet he himself is stuck in limbo, his life destroyed.  As former Immigration Minister Chris Evans said to him when he fronted him at a campaign event, 'Smuggling is a serious crime and the Australian people won't forget'.


So, is Ali al Jenabi a hero or a villain?  This is the kind of question which belongs in a comic book.  Real life is much less clearcut.  Certainly at times Ali gilds the lily.  For instance, he makes much of the notion that people smuggling was not illegal in Indonesia.  Yet this is a little disingenuous.  The act of sending people by boat to Australia may not have been, but falsifying travel documents and bribing police is clearly a crime, even if no-one was in a hurry to prosecute him for it.  And there is a certain amount of luck in all his boats landing safely.

Still there is a lot in his favour.  He is right when he points out that there was no queue to jump.  Even getting accepted as a refugee by the UNHCR is extraordinarily difficult if the nearest office is in a country you can't get to.  Once accepted there is no guarantee that you will be resettled.  Millions of people have been trapped for years and even decades in refugee camps waiting for a few thousand places a year in receiving countries.  Is in any wonder that people take the law into their own hands?

Ali is clearly unrepentant.  When he sees his own family safe and growing in Australia, and meets the other refugees he has helped to their new life, he feels a deep satisfaction that he has done some good in the world.  Yet he has also paid a heavy price.  On top of his years of torture in Abu Ghraib he spent nine months in a notorious Thai prison, where he caught TB.  He spent four years in an Australian prison and another three in Villawood detention centre.  He has lost his marriage and the right to see his daughter and been denied a second chance at marriage with his childhood sweetheart.

It is, perhaps, a bit of a stretch to compare him to Jesus.  Still, Jesus himself said, 'No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.'  This is what Ali has done.  To ensure the safety of his mother and his brothers and sisters - and in the process, the safety of hundreds of others - he has given up huge parts of his own life.  Even if we were to relent now, those lost years and lost relationships could not be recovered.

This is the shame we live with as a nation.  If we had stopped at imprisoning him on the people smuggling charge, this would still have been bad enough.  But the fact that we continue to pursue him long after his sentence has been completed shows us to be inhumane and unjust.  It is relentless and pointless.  We are not beating him and starving him like his Baathist torturers, but the difference is only one of degree.

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