Four Corners and the politics of people smuggling

Predictably enough, the Four Corners program provocatively entitled “Australia: Smugglers’ Paradise” (as if!) has unleashed a torrent of anti-refugee venom from shock jocks and sections of the mainstream media.

Abbott has seized the opportunity to announce even more draconian anti-refugee proposals. In particular, he reaffirmed the Coalition’s commitment to temporary protection visas, and announced that a Coalition government would discriminate against asylum seekers suspected of discarding identity documents.

The program portrayed people smugglers in typical fashion—unsavoury types, motivated by base greed, ruthlessly exploiting asylum seekers, contemptuous of refugees’ boat safety, and so on.

But a closer look at the program reveals serious flaws.

Four Corners alleged one of the leading organisers of refugee boats from Indonesia, Ali al-Abassi (aka Captain Emad) had “posed” as a refugee when he himself came to Australia by boat in 2010. But we know nothing of Al-Abassi’s refugee claim. In fact, most of those prosecuted under people smuggling legislation as organisers have been refugees.

The program suggested that smuggling “networks” have been established in Australia. Yet they provided no real evidence for such “networks”, except for some distant footage of a street meeting at a Sydney cafe.

Four Corners' program

The idea that people smuggling operations have been transferred to Australia from Indonesia doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. How does anyone in Australia organise boats and arrange accommodation for the hundreds of asylum seekers in Indonesia?

But in any case, what’s the problem? It is only to be expected that there would be people in Australia, many from refugee families, who would be trying to assist friends and relatives to get from Indonesia to Australia.

As for the other supposed king pin exposed by Four Corners, Ali al-Kuwaiti, there is another side to that story too. Al-Kuwaiti, who was known in Australia as Abdul Khadem, arrived with his family as an asylum seeker in 1999. At different times, members of the family were detained in Curtin, Port Hedland and Maribynong and Perth detention centres.

Al-Kuwaiti and his family were cruelly treated by the Howard government. Indeed, Abdul was one of the first victims of Howard’s people smuggling laws when he was charged in January 2001. He was only prosecuted after a year in detention and after he had acted as an interpreter and negotiator for protesting asylum seekers at Curtin. He only plead guilty to people smuggling charges after the Howard government threatened to also prosecute his wife.

It took more than three years for Abdul and his family to get decisions on their refugee applications. The Howard government made two unsuccessful attempts to use dodgy travel documents to deport the Khadem family to Iran (via Syria) and then to Vietnam. Despite the fact that the allied bombing of Baghdad had begun, the Khadem’s were coerced to return to Iraq in December 2003.

Four Corners alleges that Abdul was back in Indonesia involved in people smuggling by the beginning of 2010. But there is much more to the story of Ali Al-Kuwaiti than the “people smuggling mastermind” portrayed.

Jack Waterford in his Canberra Times article, “Emad leaves a sinking feeling”, raises some pertinent questions regarding the collaboration of the Federal Police with Four Corners, and the political interests that the program served.

How convenient that the program came along just when journalist Natalie O’Brien revealed in her article “As 108 drowned, they cried: ‘Pray for us’”, printed in the Fairfax press, that in 2009 the Federal Police delayed providing information about an asylum boat that sank, for fear of revealing their informers in Indonesia. 108 people drowned in this tragedy. Though the Federal Police knew full well that this boat had sank, they said nothing.

And Four Corners managed to show a whole program about another boat sinking—without even asking what the Federal Police knew about that boat.

Behind the hysteria

Association with people smuggling has become the central way in which the Government and the Opposition attempt to criminalise asylum seekers.

Since 2001, both Liberal and Labor federal governments have amended the Migration Act 1958 and the Commonwealth Criminal Code 1995 to elevate people smuggling into the most serious category of criminal offenses, making it now tantamount to breaches of national security with penalties equivalent to crimes such as terrorism, murder and rape.

Both the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments have a particular responsibility for ramping up the smuggling hysteria.

In April 2009, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared that people smugglers are “engaged in the world’s most evil trade” and that “they should all rot in jail, because they represent the absolute scum of the earth.”

Law amendments rushed through parliament by Gillard’s Labor just prior to the 2010 federal election, mean that people smuggling is now defined as “organising or facilitating the entry or proposed entry of a non-citizen with no lawful right to come to Australia.” This definition is at odds with international protocols which define people smuggling as, “the procurement in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit of the illegal entry of a person into a State party of which the person is not a national or permanent resident.”

This legislation means that even those who assist asylum seekers for purely humanitarian reasons are now guilty of an offence. A new offence of “providing material support” for people smuggling is clearly aimed at family members, refugee communities and refugee supporters, and makes them potentially subject to ASIO surveillance.

The vast majority of people prosecuted by the Federal Police are the Indonesian crew of the asylum boats and increasingly refugee families in Australia.


Both the government and the opposition have used the hysteria surrounding the Four Corners program to renew calls to establish offshore third country processing in Malaysia or Nauru. With Orwellian logic, both political parties use the justification of “stopping dangerous boat journeys” to justify stopping asylum seekers from getting to Australia altogether.

The constant reference to the “people smugglers’ business model” as an explanation for boat arrivals serves to divert attention from the real reasons for asylum seekers arriving in Australia—the conditions in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan and so on.

Sue Hoffman, a Perth refugee advocate who completed a PhD into asylum seekers journeys from Iraq, writes that that asylum boat organisers in Indonesia, “tend to belong to networks of individuals operating in countries of origin, transit and destination, linked through kinship or nationality.”

Both local and international studies show that it is not a “business model”, but need, that drives asylum seekers to use people smugglers.

A study done for the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights of 16 people charged with people smuggling between 2001 and 2006 found that a large majority (10 out of the 13 who were considered organisers; the other 3 were boat crew) were refugees themselves and a majority were involved for humanitarian reasons, not financial gain.

A recently published book, The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny, tells the fascinating story of Ali Al Jenabi. Jenabi was regarded a senior level smuggler and was prosecuted and convicted in 2004.

He was later found to be a refugee, but was denied a visa on character grounds because of his conviction, and remained in detention until 2008, when we was released on a Bridging Removal Pending Visa.

Jenabi was drawn into organising boats from Indonesia by his own need for protection (he was left behind in his first attempt to get a boat to Australia) and his desire to seek safety for his family.

Faris Kadhem Shohani, an Iraqi refugee, has said of Jenabi that “I think he is a very, very gentleman. I think he is the best smuggler. He had a good heart. He was not hard, not a greedy person.”

In August 2001, Jenabi sent Faris’s son, mother, younger sister and brother safely from Indonesia to Australia. He asked for $6000 for the three adults, but accepted $2100 for everyone. It was not an isolated incident. Faris, who lost his wife and seven year old daughter when the SIEV X sank in October 2001, was at the Sydney launch of The People Smuggler to speak on Ali’s behalf.

In one telling passage of the book, Ali describes watching the asylum boat crash on Christmas Island’s rocks in December 2010 and listening to Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen first talk about smashing the people smugglers business model: “I laugh out loud when I hear it. Do they think there are men in suits sitting around boardroom tables somewhere devising strategies? Has no one told them people smuggling is an amorphous rag-tag network run by word of mouth and mobile phones? There are no records or bank accounts. No spreadsheets or business plans. They pop up wherever people are trying to escape and disappear when they are no longer needed.”

Scrap the laws

Hassan Ayoub was convicted of people smuggling in 2004 and sentenced to a cumulative 22 years in prison for bringing two boats carrying 396 Cambodian asylum seekers. Every single one of his passengers was found to be a refugee.

In September 2010, Hadi Ahmadi was sentenced to seven and half years for allegedly bringing 911 people to Australia in four boats. 866 were found to be refugees.

The fact is, without the organisers and the asylum boat crew to carry the asylum seekers, the thousands of refugees who have made their way to Australia to find safety would simply not have been able to get here.

It is not illegal to seek asylum, yet successive governments have ignored international conventions and deliberately made it a crime to bring refugees to Australia.

After pressure from Australian governments, Indonesia introduced laws against people smuggling in June 2011. The consequence is that thousands of asylum seekers are crammed into prisons and detentions centres, many of them funded by the Australian government. Refugees have been beaten to death by Indonesian guards and as they face effective indefinite detention and there are growing reports of suicides.

In Australia, people smuggling laws have been introduced by successive governments in a bid to look tough on refugees. If it is no crime to seek asylum, it should be no crime to bring the boats. The people smuggling laws must be scrapped.

The recent announcement by Bowen that a “significant investor” visa for wealthy business people prepared to invest $5 million can have their permanent residency fast tracked underpins the government’s hypocrisy on refugees. If the Labor government gets its way, asylum seekers will be expelled to Malaysia and left to rot in mandatory detention. The wealthy on the other hand will get a red carpet.

As long as asylum seekers are prevented from freely seeking protection in Australia, they will need to make informal travel arrangements.

We need to stop the anti-refugee hysteria coming from Gillard and Abbott, not the people smugglers.

Ian Rintoul


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