Boat people conspiracy smashed
Tom Allard Herald Correspondent in Jakarta
December 5, 2008
INDONESIAN police say they have smashed a people-smuggling ring and arrested the kingpin of the syndicate responsible for sending rickety vessels laden with asylum-seekers on the perilous journey to Australia.
Brigadier General Badrodin Haiti, director for national security at Indonesian police headquarters, told the Herald yesterday that the arrest of an Iranian, Haj Sakih, his accomplices and some Indonesians had smashed a big people-smuggling racket.
The syndicate had smuggled scores of asylum-seekers, most of them Middle Eastern, to Australia over the past three years.
"He is a big fish," Brigadier General Haiti said of Sakih. "His connection is with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. He smuggled people to Australia several times, both successfully and unsuccessfully."
The Herald understands Sakih, who goes by several aliases and was arrested in Surabaya on Wednesday night with at least one other man, is responsible for most of the attempted boat crossings to Australia in recent times and had been chased across the archipelago for several months.
Five boats carrying 83 asylum-seekers have made it to Australian territory since September, but 15 have been stopped in Indonesia in an operation led by Indonesian police, with the assistance of Australian Federal Police.
Early yesterday police arrested another six Indonesians, confiscated a boat and detained 13 people from the Middle East in West Timor. Among the six Indonesians was another senior member of the people smuggling ring, named Kaharudin. West Timor is the Indonesian province closest to Australia.
Commissioner Okto Gerebu, a spokesman for West Timorese police, said the men had travelled by boat from Java and were preparing to set sail for Australia.
The sharp increase in people-smuggling activity in recent weeks - disclosed in the Herald on Saturday - is occurring just as the seas between Indonesia and Australia are becoming rough.
"The boats they are using are very poor," a senior police official involved in the operation said.
"They are not seaworthy, and the journey across is very dangerous."
The number of boat people trying to come to Australia is small compared with the thousands who attempted the journey in the late 1990s and early this decade.
The criminal networks have changed tactics, using smaller boats carrying fewer passengers to avoid detection. But the smaller boats are more likely to sink at sea.
More than 350 people died when a boat, known as SIEV X, sank on its way to Australia in late 2001.
The human cargo seduced by people smugglers pay up to $18,000 per person to be transported to Australia, usually from Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan.
While some bribe embassy officials for visas to Indonesia, the most common method is to bribe immigration officials at airports, either in Malaysia or in Indonesia.
This year the Federal Government relaxed aspects of Australia's policy towards asylum-seekers, provoking criticism from the Opposition that the changes were responsible for the rise in boat people.
"I'm sure that smugglers would be saying to people, 'Look, if we can get you into Australia, you'll be able to remain permanently,"' said the former Coalition immigration minister Philip Ruddock.
But the Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, said the increase in boat people reflected "push" factors - deteriorating security in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Amid the concerns about the unsafe passage of boats to Australia, the Chief of Navy, Vice-Admiral Russell Crane said the two-month stand-down of navy personnel over Christmas would not affect operations in northern Australian waters.
"We will meet all of our operational requirements."