People Smugglers: Doing it Tough

Afghan Taliban on the frontlines. Photo by Luke Hunt

Afghanistan and the long road out — This article first appeared in The Edge Review

By LUKE HUNT / Kabul

People smugglers are feeling the pinch. Escalating costs, government crackdowns and a less than compliant cargo is making life difficult for the likes of Abu Saleh, Captain Bram, Abu Visam and Sayed Abbas – perhaps Asia’s most notorious illegal importers of human beings.

All four have plied their trade from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka through the Middle East to Europe or via Southeast Asia and into Australia, making small fortunes out of illegal immigrants, political asylum seekers, economic refugees and ordinary people desperate for a peaceful life.

Much of that business begins here around the jewelry shops of Chicken Street in Kabul, where the desperate swap family heirlooms for cash, and negotiate with travel agents who pass themselves off as legitimate businessmen while acting as middlemen for smugglers.

The going rate for forged passports and visas, tickets into Southeast Asia or the Middle East, and boats to Australia or Europe is currently fetching up to US$25,000 a head. That’s up from between US$10,000 to US$12,000 in the late 1990s.

International authorities says Captain Bram, a long-term operator based out of Indonesia, has notched-up 40 individual smuggling attempts into Australia since 2008, the Indonesian government was aware of this but has refused Australian requests for an extradition.

Australian government sources blame Saleh for an operation that went tragically wrong, ending in the deaths of at least 31 passengers in Indonesian waters two months ago.

Reports of bullying by the crew are also common and according to one non-governmental organization (NGO) source “… smugglers will extort sexual favors from women by threatening not to send them to Australia if they do not comply.”

In another incident crewmen bet on who could make one passenger cry first. The winner claimed his prize after the hapless Afghan was dumped and deserted on a remote beach. Most crimes, however, go unreported and are more often linked to blackmail and extortion and that occur en-route.

Typically, people smugglers also ply the scheduled airline routes, ferrying Afghans, Iraqis and Iranian to Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Kuala Lumpur as readily as they do across the Indian Ocean, Malaccan Straits or Timor Sea.

In Southeast Asia smugglers have long-favored Chow Kit, a suburb in Kula Lumpur, to transit their cargo through. Here friendly hotels, restaurants and nearby mosques offer shelter with few questions asked while the money is collected and paperwork finalized ahead their next journey to Indonesia.

From small, secluded fishing ports in Java and Sumatra, the final leg to Australia is made. But too often the voyage is marred by trouble and case files provided by Australian government sources offer a rare insight into the plight of what it calls illegal immigrants.

One asylum seeker banked US$15,000 after seven years of restaurant work. The sum was used as a down payment for passage for his family from Afghanistan to Australia but they were arrested in Indonesia where they remain stranded with the smugglers refusing to pay back their money.

In another incident, smugglers were disbelieving when one client claimed his fare was paid. He was threatened with a syringe filled with a yellow liquid and told to hand over his passport. The passport was shredded and burned and the passenger threatened with hanging unless more money was forthcoming.

An Australian government source said their plight was “indicative of the money grubbing attitudes of people smugglers who see their cargo as little more than cattle”.

However, successive Australia governments have also been criticized for what many see as an unfair and harsh stand against illegal immigrants with the opening of the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea and further camps in Nauru as an alternative to the usual route into Australia via Christmas Island off the north east coast.

As a result people smugglers are being confronted by passengers angered at being told Australia was not an option, they don’t want to go to PNG or Nauru – which rank among the world’s least developed countries – and would prefer their money back and a ticket home.

“The smugglers really are coming under intense financial pressure. They are refusing to refund fees to passengers that no longer want to make the trip and unless they are genuine asylum seekers as opposed to an economic refugee, they are not interested in PNG or Nauru,” the Australian government source said.

On Manus Island illegal immigrants and asylum seekers can apply for residency through United Nations programs to a third country but Australia is no longer an option. This process is made harder because PNG does not have a processing system to determine asylum seeker claims.

People diverted to Manus island or Nauru are being left in a legal limbo and in the interim life is harsh.  The UN High Commission for Refugees says the facilities on PNG fail to meet international protection standards and common complaints include extremely hot and humid conditions and a shortage of clean drinking water.

Sources from non-governmental organizations (NGOGs) said the facility had been described as dog kennel by those who worked there adding that reports of rape had been received, including one Pakistani man who was raped by six inmates.

“The people who run the detention centre know what is happening,” one source said. “But the victim and perpetrators are still housed in the same area because there is nowhere else to put them.”

About 600 people have been stopped from getting on boats in Indonesia since the conservative Liberal Party was elected in Australia on September 7 and Operation Sovereign Borders introduced. Tony Negus, Australian Federal Police (AFP) chief commissioner hailed the success saying it was the result of the cooperative relationship with other agencies in Australia and the Indonesian National Police.

However that relationship with Jakarta has also been sorely tested.

Australia took about 60 asylum seekers last week after they were refused entry to Indonesia, causing a diplomatic row between the two neighbors. They will be taken to Christmas Island and then onto Manus Island or Nauru.

“In the best interests of the safety of the passengers and crew,” Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said, “earlier this morning I requested transfer of the persons rescued to Christmas Island for rapid onward transfer to Manus Island or Nauru.”

“They will not be resettled in Australia,” he said.

That message has only added to the existing complications of life onboard the boats. Busted promises of political asylum in a first world country and a failure to deliver have resulted in wild scenes. In mid-September a brawl erupted in Cisarua on Java after the Syrian smuggler Abu Vasim refused to hand back money to two groups of Iranians after an illegal crossing to Australia went awry.

An academic report undertaken at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul documented similar stories with Afghan emigrants told to lie and make up cover stories to justify false claims for political asylum in Europe, Canada, or Australia.

Typically passengers would initially travel on legally obtained Afghan passports into transit countries like the United Arab Emirates. Here they were met by agents who provide fake British or European passports with the appropriate visas.

“As you know anybody who immigrates, to get citizenship they make a fake scenario to show that their life is in risk in their own country or they have some social problems that makes it difficult for them to live in their own country,” one failed Afghan asylum seeker was quoted as saying.

A subsequent story was fabricated that the father of a refugee had fought the Taliban and was captured and killed, his body sent back with a message the son would also die.

His family escaped and moved into their grandfather’s house in Kabul where life was getting back to normal when the Taliban discovered and resumed harassing them. It become too much once a grenade was thrown into their home.

The report quoted the asylum seeker as saying he raised US$20,000 with the support of his grandfather and he boarded a flight for Dubai with an Afghan passport and a UAE visa and a fake British passport hidden in his overnight bag. But their plans fell apart when an airline official insisted that the intended carry-on luggage be checked-in.

There is no shortage of genuine refugees in need of political asylum from Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. More than two million refugees have fled Syria for neighboring countries and they could herald the next big wave illegal immigrants in search of safer shores.

However, their choices are being whittled back by get tough immigration policies in the west, increased costs and a crackdown on people smugglers by international authorities. The tragedy being that boat people with genuine grounds for asylum have been caught-out and their chances of finding a politically safe harbor is proving harder than ever.

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