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The boats have (almost) stopped; but Indonesia’s people smugglers are thriving?

by Duncan Graham | May 26, 2024 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

From 300 boat arrivals in 2013 to four last year, the boats have (almost) been stopped. Yet people smugglers putting asylum seekers on boats in Indonesia appears to be thriving. Duncan Graham reports from Kupang.

They’re among Australia’s most wanted, but what police call the ‘X gang led by HR’ is unlikely to be caught Down Under. Yet this is the destination for which the criminal syndicate has been advertising packages online and risking buyers’ lives.

The clients – some of them apparently Chinese – are gullible. They’re desperate enough to chance drownings and long-term detention, also ambitious enough to buy the high-price tickets and ignore persistent warnings that they’ll be arrested and never able to settle in Australia.

Boat people numbers today are minuscule when measured against those getting to Australia early last decade. Eventually, the dirty trade was crippled by the Coalition government’s military-style Sovereign Borders policy in 2013.

That was the year when numbers peaked with more than 20,000 people on 300 boats.

That wave’s been dumped. Last year there were 74 people on four boats. At the same time about 23,000 arrived by air, applied for asylum and stayed free working in the community, a racket rarely aired in the scare campaigns.

They were well dressed, mainly from Commonwealth-member Malaysia, and didn’t look bedraggled, desperate, or threatening. Most claims fail and they eventually get deported sometimes years later

Boat people bad, plane people good

The turn-backs, deportations and jailings seemed to deter sea travel but the cost to our reputation as impartial administrators is a worry..

The Refugee Council claims Australia’s policies ‘are now among the most punitive in the world’. They’re being used as a model for anti-refugee laws in Britain which got 84,425 asylum applicants last year.

In Australia between 1 May 2022 and  30 March this year, twelve boats carrying 247 people have been caught and sent to a detention camp in Nauru. Indonesian crew have usually been deported.

Australia’s Border Farce. Stops a boat, ignores the planeloads, targets the 0.05%

This ‘upturn’ in arrivals under the present government and the inclusion of a few Chinese has refuelled the Opposition’s allegation that Labor is soft on security and encouraging boat people. In response the government has hardened the Morrison-era line of ‘we stopped the boats’.

The people smugglers wanted in Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia are most likely skulking in Surabaya, the Republic’s second-biggest city and capital of East Java.

That’s the theory of Indonesian police commissioner Aria Sandy who claims recent attempted illegal sailings of economic refugees to Australia have been thwarted by local fishers spotting and reporting newcomers to Kupang.

Police Commissioner Aria Sandy

Police Commissioner Aria Sandy. Photo by Erlinawati Graham

Aiming for the Kimberley Coast

Kupang is the former Portuguese city (population now 445,000), the capital of the Indonesian section of Timor Island.

It’s 950 km east of Bali. Closer is the Kimberley coast of WA, about 800 km south, the destination for the economically desperate.

The ABC has reported that recently caught men, now held on Nauru, have been driven by need having failed at businesses in their homelands.

Aria told MWM that Kupang has become the new hub for people traffickers selling complex package deals to Australia for 30,000 Malaysian ringgits ($9,570). He said

The men hear about the trade through messages on TikTok,

“They transfer their money into an account run by an Indonesian woman called Fika.  She’s the kawin siri (de facto) Indonesian wife of the Mr Big “HR” whose real name is Habibu Rahman. He’s from Bangladesh.”

MWM understand that a man with that name was reportedly held as a suspected asylum seeker in Darwin’s detention centre in 2011 where he was involved in protests. Although it’s not known if it’s the same person the fact that both are allegedly in the smuggling business is curious.

Aria continued, “There’s also another man involved with HR and Fika called Sahib but we don’t know much about him. “We’ve gathered the information from some of the people we’ve caught. We don’t have photos of the smugglers but know how they operate.

“Their customers are illegally in Malaysia and told to get into Indonesia through Medan (a port on the coast of Sumatra close to Malaysia).

“They’re moved to Jakarta and then Surabaya using a hotel to hold the men till they have enough for a boat they’d bought in Sulawesi. (MWM has chosen not to name the hotel because the owners may not be involved in any illegality).

The smugglers have close ties to Indonesian trepang fishers who work the border with Australia and know when they’re not likely to be caught.

In April, a boat or boats with ten Chinese men made it to the Kimberley without the Australian Border Force or other agencies being aware. Last month one man wandered unchallenged onto the unfenced Truscott air base.

Two months earlier 39 Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indian citizens also reached WA with Indonesian people smugglers.

There’s confusion about numbers and nationalities. The term ‘Chinese’ can mean a citizen of the People’s Republic or an ethnic Chinese born and living overseas.

The men have been sent by the Australian Border Force to Nauru for processing. The agency which could clarify the situation has not given information to the media claiming its ‘long-standing policy’ is to keep quiet.

Consequently taxpayers stay ignorant of how and where their money is being spent. State police forces are far more open about their criminal investigations.

‘HR and his gang’

Despite a paucity of leads, Aria is confident HR and his gang will be caught because so many countries and agencies are looking for them – though not all with the same enthusiasm.

A search of this gravity requires cooperation and coordination – not always present when national and departmental rivalries are rife and the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.

A few dozen asylum seekers, economic refugees, aka boat people, may set Australian electors trembling and politics aflame, though not elsewhere.

Aria said that the latest group of illegal venturers (some reports claim they are Chinese, others that they’re from Bangladesh) were held in Immigration detention and getting care from the UNHCR.

However, the detention centre said it hadn’t seen any boat people. Another UN body, the International Organisation for Migration which does have an office in Kupang, confirmed the UNHCR is no longer in the province.

Aria referred inquiries to see the boat used by the HR syndicate to the Fisheries Department because their staff arrested the crew.  He said the police were not involved.

Yet the craft is held by the water police about 20 km outside Kupang.

Ghost ship in Kupang

Photo by Erlinawati Graham

The smugglers’ land operation may have been sophisticated, but its on-water plan was not. They used a 12-metre dark ghost boat elusive at night and carrying no name or numbers.

The local fleet flaunts gaudy colours, lights, high masts,flags and names, so  a standout, rapidly attracting attention.  It’s tied  up on an isolated rocky shore below a police ecumenical church. The low-profile craft has been fitted with powerful new motors making it ideal to drop passengers, flee and outrun pursuit.

Much like its owners, the X gang.

Refugees still coming

The NGO Human Rights Watch  estimates 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers—including 100,000 Rohingya – are in Malaysia: “

Unofficial estimates of undocumented migrants range from 1.2 to 3.5 million, and none of them have recognised status as refugees.

Indonesia hasn’t signed the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, nor does it have a system to determine their status. So the national government has flipped problems to the UN High Commission for Refugees, which is supposed to ‘identify solutions for refugees in the country.’

This usually means they live on handouts as working is illegal.  About 14,000 refugees are languishing in Indonesia hoping for resettlement in another country.  Some have been waiting for more than ten years.

Desperate people who are easy prey for HR and his gang to keep filling up boats. The Kimberley Coast is long, we know at least one boat came through undetected. Who is to say there aren’t more?

Sex and the sea slugs. Indonesian boat-people invasion is more about sea cucumbers

Duncan Graham has a Walkley Award, two Human Rights Commission awards and other prizes for his radio, TV and print journalism in Australia. He now lives in Indonesia.

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