The people smuggler: A review

by

THE PEOPLE SMUGGLER, ROBIN DE CRESPIGNY,  PENGUIN VIKING, 2012

By Jenny Haines

This is an important book in the debate about refugees, asylum seekers and people smugglers. It should be read by all members of federal parliament, some of whom stood weeping in parliament during the debate on asylum seekers in 2012, and then allowed the reopening of the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres to add to the misery they claimed to be so concerned about.

At last we get to hear the debate from the point of view of an asylum seeker who, through circumstance becomes a “people smuggler”.

Ali Al Jenabi grew up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He learnt very early the vile nature of Saddam’s regime through the internment, torture and persecution of his father, a man with a most remarkable ability to survive the horrors of the regime’s jails.

Ali himself was interned in Abu Ghraib and despite the best efforts of the cruel guards, he also survived. He made several efforts to escape from Iraq and eventually after many attempts reached Malaysia, and then Indonesia.

His bravery, endurance, commitment and sheer entrepreneurial skills are just what Australia needs, but in Indonesia they were also just what his fellow Iraqis fleeing the horrors of Saddam needed.

After being cheated on the beach by a people smuggler, Ali decided to go into the business of transporting desperate people to Australia by boat, not to cheat and rob them but to help them. His prime motive was always to raise enough money to get his own family out of Iraq and to Australia. As his lawyer in Australia said to him later:

“Smuggling is the wrong description for you. You weren’t trying to get people into a country without the authorities knowing. The Australians knew from their own intelligence the vessel had left Indonesia, because their Orion aircraft were out there looking for it. They picked the people up and took them to Australian territory for processing as refugees. That’s not smuggling. Smuggling is about hiding people in containers and under vehicles like they do in Europe. You were not doing that. Nor were you human trafficking, which is kidnapping and trading of slaves for sex or labour.”

Through trial and error Ali gradually learned the “people smuggling” business, successfully getting seven boats to Australia, including one that carried several members of his family.

There was a terrible time for Ali where he heard that the boat carrying his family members may have gone down. He lay catatonic on a bed for 14 days until his sister rang from Australia to tell him the captain got lost, so the triptook seven days, and then when they landed the Australian authorities kept the news from the media so no one knew the boat had arrived. Ali wept like a child.

People smuggling is not illegal in Indonesia, which is just a well, as many people in authority are getting a cut of the trade. Ali had to pay them all so the desperate people he was trying to help could get to safety.

For the Australian Federal Police to arrest Ali they had to get him to Thailand. Ali was betrayed, and the AFP arrested him in Thailand on a false passport charge, then charged him with people smuggling.

He was extradited to Australia and tried in a Darwin court on people smuggling charges but Australia’s lawyers and courts didn’t share the AFP’s view. After hearing all the evidence, Justice Mildren said:

Oskar Schindler saved many lives by employing Jews as slave labourers and he made a great deal of money out of their labour, although of course he did later repay many of those that he was able to save. But the point is a valid one: there can be mixed motives and I accept that the prisoner was not solely motivated by money, but was largely motivated by the need to get his family to Australia come what may.

Ali Al Jenabi …the Oskar Schindler of Asia.

Ali was sentenced to jail and with time already served was released after 21 months. On his release an immigration officer tried to trick him in to going back to Iraq voluntarily, but he refused to sign and made a claim for asylum.

He spent time in Villawood detention centre while the Howard government, and ministers of the Rudd and Gillard governments, angry at the court’s failure to make an example of him to pander to perceived marginal seat prejudice, spitefully kept him in detention.

It was only when asylum seeker activists took up his case he finally was granted a “removal pending bridging visa”, which meant the government could send him back to Iraq at a time of its choosing.

Faris, an asylum seeker who travelled to Australia on one of Ali’s boats, but lost his family on the SIEV X says of Ali in the book:

I think he is a very very gentleman. He is the best smuggler. He had a good heart. He was not hard, not a greedy person. I have a conscience about what I saw from Ali Al Jenabi.

Ali watched the parliamentary debate in 2012 and heard Julia Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen talk about “the people smugglers business model”. He laughed and asked:

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. If you want to stop people smugglers you have to do something about what causes people to flee their own countries in the first place.

Wise words from Ali Al Jenabi. Is anyone in power listening?


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