Who said ‘people smuggling’ is a bad thing?

April 3, 2012
Panel at the March 27 Melbourne forum, 'Smuggled to Freedom: behind the anti-people smuggling rhetoric'. Photo: Ali Bakhtiavandi

“I was a people smuggler,” said Hungarian refugee and refugee rights activist Peter Farago to a public meeting of about 70 people in Melbourne on March 27.

The public meeting, titled “Smuggled to Freedom: behind the anti-people smuggling rhetoric”, was organised by the Refugee Action Collective Victoria to expose the rhetoric behind the government’s anti-people smuggling campaign.

Farago told his story to the meeting. At 14, he had to hide in a forest from the Nazis. He then he endured the siege of Budapest before it fell to the Red Army. At 18, Farago escaped from Hungary at the height of the Stalinist terror but his mother was left behind.

He ended up in Vienna where he met a people smuggler who helped him return to Hungary to rescue his mother and others. He described people smugglers as the “travel agents of the poor and oppressed”.

Farago pointed out that over 1949 to 1951, asylum seekers were not persecuted when they arrived in the West. Now, it’s a wheel of fortune as to whether asylum seekers are accepted as refugees.

Another speaker at the forum, Nockie Le, escaped from Vietnam with her whole family. Le began her talk saying: “Tonight I want to pay my respects to all the people smugglers who helped my family escape — a kindly aunt, a kindly uncle, a nice lady, the whole village helped us escape.”

She added, that when your life is in danger, you recruit your loved ones to help you escape.

Le said that those who escaped by boat from Vietnam were not wealthy — they were escaping war, violence, persecution, famine, and the effects of Agent Orange.

A lawyer for the some of the Indonesians accused of people smuggling, Sandra Wendlandt, told the forum how some of her clients had thought that they were transporting tourists and had no understanding of the “crime” of people smuggling. Some Indonesian crew are hired for what they think is a fishing trip, then asylum seekers are loaded onto their boat out at sea, unexpectedly.

Some Indonesian crew have been simply given coordinates to sail to, not knowing that those coordinates take them to Christmas Island. Other Indonesians have said they thought Christmas Island, which has another name in Indonesian, is a part of Indonesia.

One of Wendlandt’s clients was a 15-year-old Indonesian boy accused of people smuggling. Australian authorities had held the boy in an adult jail. When he arrived on Christmas Island, he was told to lie about his age and say that he was an adult.

Later on, he realised this was a mistake and said that he was only 15. He showed his family ID card, which proved his age. Wendlandt said an official took the boy’s ID card and never returned it to him. The Australian authorities later put him in an adult jail and claimed a wrist x-ray proved he was an adult.

Wendlandt visited the boy’s family on a remote Indonesian island and easily obtained the boy’s birth certificate to prove his age. She found that no Australian authority had been in touch with the boy’s parents to verify his age or to inform them of what had happened.

Wendlandt said the jailed Indonesians awaiting trial for people smuggling are very frustrated and vulnerable because they cannot communicate with the guards or other prisoners, do not have access to phones or phone cards and do not understand the Australian legal system.

She said many do not believe they have committed a crime so do not understand why they face up to five years in jail.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told the forum that the Kevin Rudd Labor government introduced mandatory jail sentences for people smuggling in 2010. She described how one Indonesian boy was detained for 735 days without charge and then held for another 400 days before being released.

Hanson-Young said she has introduced two bills into the federal parliament. One is the “Fairness for minors” bill, which challenges the discredited wrist xrays to determine age and puts in place time frames for processing cases. The second bill removes mandatory sentences for people smuggling.

Arnold Zable, an award-winning writer and refugee advocate, asked the crowd to think about the hard questions. He said that there are three categories of people smuggler: one that does it for altruistic reasons, a second category that does it for a combination of altruistic reasons and money and a third category that are crime syndicates motivated by money.

He said that the SEIV X refugee boat tragedy in 2001, when 353 refugees drowned, was a result of a crime syndicate.

Several audience members responded that the government’s criminalisation of people smugglers was another way of criminalising asylum seekers and that all laws criminalising people smuggling need to be abolished.

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