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Of fishers and men

Of fishers and men
Published: Mar 20, 2011

Asriana Kebon

   Indonesian fishers are the sacrificial lambs of the people
   smuggling industry
   F. Madrid

Australia currently faces the dilemma of how to deal with a large number of asylum seekers who are arriving by boat on the quest to find refuge on Australian shores. The responses to this issue have been both divisive and emotional. But amidst all the controversy one group of people affected have been all but forgotten. The majority of media reports, NGO campaigns and government debates have focused on the people claiming asylum. The asylum seekers have a large group of Australian supporters who willingly champion their cause and fight for their legal rights, even if they do not always succeed.

The Indonesian crews do not have the benefit of this support base. These men are marginalised fishers from impoverished villages throughout the Indonesian archipelago who are targeted by unscrupulous people smugglers to crew their boats. In the eyes of the smugglers they are a cheap, disposable commodity. If apprehended by the Australian authorities they are treated as criminals and held in detention centres until their cases are put before the courts.

In August 2010, Indonesian boat crew held at the Darwin immigration detention centre for transporting asylum seekers into Australian waters voiced their frustrations. Over a number of days, these men protested, rioted and made an effort to have their voices heard. More than six months on, the media spotlight has moved off them and we know little of their existence. Again it seems they have been forgotten.

Full-time fisher, part-time smuggler

It is well documented that illegal fishing in Australia’s northern waters is a concern for the Australian government. Traditionally these waters were the fishing grounds for eastern Indonesian coastal families who rely upon produce from the sea as their economic mainstay. But with increased surveillance in the region due, to the onset of ‘irregular maritime arrivals’ (asylum seekers), it is now ever more difficult for these fisherpeople to enter Australian waters.

There is an understanding that traditional fishers are able to fish in what is known as the ‘box area’, designated in the vicinity of Ashmore Reef under a 1974 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Australia and Indonesia. However, the increase in border security and surveillance has meant that illegal fishing in areas outside of the MoU box has been seriously curtailed. The income generated by those who once relied on entering a larger area of Australian waters to fish for trepang, shark fin, green snail, trochus shell and other marine products has now been further diminished due to the fishers’ inability to reach these fishing grounds. Pushed into an economic quandary, some of them are now turning to alternative means to support their families, including people smuggling.

Pushed into an economic quandary, some of them are now turning to alternative means to support their families – including people smuggling

The Northern Territory Supreme Court recently heard and sentenced a number of these men on people smuggling charges. They all pleaded guilty to the aggravated crime of people smuggling contrary to section 232A and 233C(2)(b) and (3)(b) of the 1958 Migration Act. All were sentenced to five years imprisonment with a non-parole period of three years. Through the published sentencing remarks made by the judges in their cases, we can attain a brief insight into the lives of these traditional coastal men.

Not all of the fishers originated from the Nusa Tenggara Timur region as one might assume. They have come from throughout the archipelago. To understand the plight of these men you have to consider their lives prior to their arrival in Australia. The court archives are a witness to their predicament.

Take for example the prisoner called Bumiamin. The facts presented before the court portrayed him as a fisher. ‘He lives in the village of Tanjung Luar with his wife and children on the island of Lombok. He has worked as a fisherman since before his children were born. In January 2010, he was not working because it was the monsoon season and a person who he had not previously met, came to his house and offered him a job to take people to the border. The offender asked who the people were and he was told he would be taking Afghans to the border.’ Bumiamin made the journey to Australia with his son; it was just the two of them and their passengers.

In contrast to Bumiamin and his son is the case of a young man named Aldi Dokeng. In the sentencing remarks by Justice Kelly, it was presented that ‘[I]t is clear that you [Dokeng] are a poor man, who was paid a pittance to bring 21 other people from Kupang to Ashmore Reef on a boat. From the submissions made by your counsel, it appears that you were recruited to do this in circumstances where it appears that you felt, financially, you had little real chance but to accept the offer that was made to you. Whatever the hazards of the voyage, you shared them. It appears you were kind to the passengers.’

Then there is the story of Kala Alim Saling and Dartho Subang Maley from Balikpapan. Their story and journey to Australia is in stark contrast to that of Bumiamin and Dokeng. The remarks made by Justice Riley demonstrate the diverse nature of how Indonesian fishers are being recruited. ‘They [Saling & Maley] became involved in the offending when they were separately approached to undertake what was described as tourist work. It became obvious to each of them later that the tourist work was actually transporting people to Australia. They did not understand that they would be facing a gaol term as a consequence. They were each offered what was to them a significant amount of money although in the scheme of the people smuggling business it was a small amount. They were simply hired labour with no responsibility other than to transfer people from Indonesia to Australia. They were not organisers. They did not arrange the attendance of the passengers. They simply did as they were instructed.’

Push and pull factors

A brief glance at the lives of the men as presented in the sentencing remarks underlines the economic push factors, which drove them into accepting these jobs. Living in impoverished conditions by the coast, the men were motivated by need, not greed.

Living in impoverished conditions by the coast, the men were motivated by need, not greed

Estimates show that over 80 per cent of the people living in coastal villages in Indonesia rely on fishing or the sea to support their livelihood. With some of them knowing that it is increasingly difficult to fish in Australian waters, it is understandable that they find attractive the offer of what is for them a large amount of money to transport asylum seekers.

The way in which fishing ventures operate in Indonesia also means that these men may have been in debt bondage for a number of years, pushing them further and further into poverty. The hierarchy of the fishing bosses and fishers is one that is complex and relies solely on the kindness of the sea. The more the fishers can produce the more money they are paid. The other side of this coin is that if they do not bring in big catches they can go into debt to their bosses for the cost of fuel and boat hire.

In response to Australia’s strict maritime laws, many coastal villagers set up seaweed farms as a source of alternative income, with funding assistance from Ausaid and the Australian Embassy. Unfortunately some of those who have tried to avoid debt bondage to a fishing boss in this way have succumbed to a set of unfortunate circumstances. The oil leak from PTTEP Australasia’s Atlas West rig on the Montara oilfield in 2009 contaminated the sea. Though there is still controversy concerning the extent of the pollution and its effects, it appears the spill contaminated Indonesian waters as far away as Alor and Flores, killing marine life and destroying several of the cottage industry seaweed farms in western Indonesia. In November 2010 Radio ABC interviewed Ferdi Tanoni a Kupang based businessman on the damage caused. Tanoni highlighted that ‘the fish still haven’t come back after the oil spill. There are no jobs and in villages along the coast families are starving.’

Clearly the pull factor of easy money provided by the snakeheads is more than attractive to these men who barely earn enough money to survive. Preying on their poverty, lack of education and need to support their families, the snakeheads are deliberately sourcing these men from areas targeted as ‘recruit’ islands. The poorer the persons, the easier they are to recruit. Masnellyarti Hilman, who is leading the Indonesian government’s team fighting for compensation for the damage from the oil spill, acknowledges this factor and recognises that more and more fishers will turn to illegal sources of income such as people smuggling.

There is a misconception held by the Australian public and the media that asylum seekers transit through Indonesia very quickly on the way to Australia. This assumption is untrue. Many live in Indonesia for years, waiting for the opportunity or funds to proceed to Australia. Some even marry and have children to Indonesian nationals before entering Australia. It is this underground network, which has given rise to a select group of people smugglers, proficient in the use of the Indonesian language and conversant with the culture and infrastructure of the host country.

These ‘snakeheads’ organise highly coordinated smuggling ventures. These men accept the thousand of dollars asylum seekers pay for their passage through to Australia. They also knowingly recruit the fishers to transport asylum seekers to Australia and take the brunt of the criminal charges. The fishers who are paid a small sum for their labour when caught pay a far greater price with a mandatory jail term.

To turn the tide

The current Australian minimum mandatory sentences which are now imposed on the Indonesian crews are in place to act as a general deterrent against people smuggling. It is a deterrent that is not working. Many of the crew operate under the false impression that the sentence, if caught, is minimal. Justice Barr of the Northern Territory Supreme Court remarked in the Balu and Seukh case that ‘I point out that the general deterrent effect of any sentences I impose will not be great unless the existence of minimum mandatory sentencing and information about the actual prescribed minimums is widely disseminated throughout the Indonesian Archipelago and, in particular, those poorer and more remote parts where fishermen and other seafarers may be enticed into becoming crew members of vessels which transport people illegally to Australian territory.’

The number of so-called SIEVs (Suspected Irregular Entry Vessels) that have entered Australian waters over the past two and a half years suggest that minimum mandatory sentencing is not working as a deterrent. The only way to effectively deliver successful deterrence is to ensure that these men, their families and the remote areas where they are recruited have access to information about the mandatory minimum sentencing and Australian people smuggling laws. Greater access to such information will weaken the base of the people smuggling empires.

Governments need to acknowledge the role that these men play in people smuggling is in one sense minor. Unscrupulous snakeheads see them as pawns in a profitable chess game. They are easily bought and disposed of. Yet in a larger sense they are pivotal to the success of each shipment of human cargo. In order to combat people smuggling the Australian government needs to recognise the significance of the part that fishers play in the process. It is time for Australia to work co-operatively with Indonesia to develop and facilitate current and culturally appropriate education programs in coastal villages aimed at empowering the powerless to say no to people smuggling. To put it simply, when there is no one to sail the boats, the arrivals will eventually stop.

Asriana Kebon ( is a PhD candidate at Charles Darwin University, researching human trafficking and people smuggling in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 103: Jan-Mar 2011

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