Crown Prosecutor: “The Afghani men were standing on either side of you in the boat’s cabin making sure you steered the boat after the captain and his assistant jumped off the boat into the water near Kupang?”
Crown Prosecutor: “What about before the captain jumped off the boat, were the Afghan men there?”
Crown Prosecutor: “Standing beside you?”
Defendant: “Yes, they were standing beside me when I was steering the boat after the captain and his assistant took two life-vests and jumped overboard”
Crown Prosecutor: “You just said they were there before the captain jumped over-board?”
It is these kinds of frustrating interactions by goading, culturally insensitive crown prosecutors trying to play with semantics and linguistics to try and entrap uneducated fisherman from some of the poorest parts of Indonesia that had been duped into getting on a boat to cook noodles or fix an engine and wound up facing 5 years mandatory prison in Australia that led me to get involved with Brisbane based lawyer David Svoboda and try to help some of the victims and their families back in Indonesia and shed some light on some of the read stories of The People Smugglers’.
Welcome to AustraliaIn 2010 interpreting for the courts, AFP, prison system / Correctional Services and Legal Aid, I found myself coming face to face daily with Indonesian men just having flown into Brisbane from Christmas Island and Darwin. For many of them, I would be the first face they met as they arrived at the Brisbane watch-house ready to be officially charged and arrested by the AFP for *“Bringing a group of five or more non-citizens to Australia recklessly, without regard as to whether or not they have a legal right to enter the country” *
The cold, fluorescent-bulb lit cells were a big contrast from their more ‘luxurious’ confines when they were in detention at Darwin and Christmas island. They shiver as they put on their ‘browns’ (brown light cotton prison uniform) and are stunned as all their possessions are confiscated including reading glasses, prayer mats and copies of the Holy Quran. When asked during their induction prison interview ‘is there anything you don’t eat’, the common answer is ‘pork and dog’ – always guaranteed to get a laugh from the watch-house staff which further bewilders the fishermen.
‘We were told that we would be shipping wood from Surabaya to Kupang’
After speaking to these guys in prison and during the many days at a time in the docks of the Magistrate’s, District and Supreme Courts, the story is common. They were in most cases ‘merantau’ – traveling out of their village looking to find work to support their families back home. Someone offered them a job on a boat either ‘shipping wood’, ‘moving cargo’ or ‘taking tourists on a tour around the islands’. For those who had the audacity to ask where they were going to their ‘bosses’, they were told either ‘not to worry – it’s not their job to think of those things’, or that they were going to Kupang or ‘Pulau Pasir’ (Sand Island) which is the Indonesian name for the Australian Territory for Ashmore Reef.
Just Keep Following the ‘Number 16’In many cases, the ‘captains’ would jump ship somewhere near Kupang or Rote and have the cook or mechanic which were often children as young as 14 years old, to keep driving for a few more hours and head toward ‘number 16’ on the compass. There would be someone to pick them up.
Little did they know that following ‘number 16’ on the compass would head them toward the 12 contiguous zone around Ashmore Reef and the ‘people that would be picking them up’ were in fact the Australian Navy or Customs.
Don’t Question Authority – Don’t Question Absurdity.
It is not in Indonesian culture for people to question authority, and the often absurdity of things laborers are asked to do by their bosses. There is an enormous gap between income of the have’s and have-not’s in Indonesia, so as one gets an opportunity to gain a substantially larger sum of money for doing a seemingly simple job, it’s not suspicious. Rather, it’s all part and parcel of finding ‘Rezeki’ – or God’s sustenance and blessing that one receives in a lifetime.
This is one of the few offenses under Australian law where when convicted, the defendant will receive 5 years mandatory prison, eligible for parole after 3 years. This has been to the ire of many judges as their decision making power is stripped and handed over solely to the juries. In most cases, white Australians that know nothing of the cultures of Indonesia or the cultures of the passengers. Their views have been formed and cemented by the heavily ‘spun’ sound bites that they hear on the Morning Show or the 6 o’clock news in Australia.
Finding the Smugglers’ Safe HousesThere are other victims in this too. The refugees themselves. Working on some tip-offs by some of the so called ‘smugglers’, I tracked down several safe-houses in Java in a district notorious for smuggling gangs. I was warned that the roads and entrances were being watched. Despite this, after taking some precautions, we made our way into one of the safe-houses and were greeted by 10 very hospitable Afghanis who had been in Indonesia for no more than 7 days. They poured tea for us as they shared their tales of horror of why they had to leave Afghanistan. The wounds were still fresh – some of them having family members murdered only weeks before, some having to pay USD$25,000 to have their employees released by the Taliban, then having to pay another USD$22,000 to be able to escape with their life in tact.
When I shared with them the ‘real’ story of what would happen to them, that they would not be getting onto a luxurious boat to Australia and in fact the boats that they will be getting on are leaky, dangerous old boats manned by inexperienced fishermen and children that were tricked into getting on-board and would find themselves doing prison time so that these Afghanis could seek asylum in Australia, tears started to well up in many of their eyes. The response however was ‘Well what else can we do? If we go back home we die. Our families life savings have been spent getting us to this point and if we stay here, our future is bleak. We have paid $4,000 to our handlers because we know we will probably get caught by Indonesian police at least once, held and beaten. That $4,000 will be used to bail us out after a few days and we will go back to our original plan to head out of Indonesia”.
In this 101 East documentary, you will hear two of these people being interviewed.
The Real Questions?
There are many new questions that I hope this documentary will bring up in the Australian mainstream:
“How much money is it costing us incarcerating these people?”
“Is it really deterring people from getting on the boats?”
“If 101 East could find the smugglers in a few hours, why can’t the Australian authorities find them?”
“How do these people get through borders so fluidly without any documentation?”
“What’s happening at Kuala Lumpur Airport in Malaysia?”
Who Does Australia Belong to Anyway? Aren’t We All Boat People?
For my two cents worth, these guys that I have met are well educated, well spoken and have put everything they have on the line to come to Australia to try and make a life for themselves. Many Australians complain about ‘queue jumpers’, but hey, these guys have proven that they are not lazy, industrious, spent tens of thousands of dollars and willing to do what it takes to make a life for them and their families. Maybe these would be some of the best people to let into the country after all?