A REVIEW “THE PEOPLE SMUGGLER” BY ROBIN DE CRESPIGNY, PENGUIN VIKING,2012.
By Jenny Haines
This is an important book in the current debate about refugees, asylum seekers and people smugglers that 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 re-opening of Nauru and Manus Island to add to the asylum seeker 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’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 Saddam’s jails. Ali himself is interned in Abu Ghraib and despite the best efforts of the cruel guards, he also survives Saddam’s jails. He makes several efforts to escape Iraq and eventually after many attempts gets to Malaysia, and then on to Indonesia. After you have read what he has been through you are cheering him on. 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 decides to go into the business of transporting desperate people to Australia by boat himself, but 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 says 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 Australian’s 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.”
Ali gradually learns through trial and error the “people smuggling” business, successfully getting seven boats to Australia, including one which carried several members of his family. There is a terrible time for Ali where he hears that the boat that his family were on may have gone down. He lies catatonic on a bed for 14 days until his sister rings from Australia to tell him that the captain got lost, so it took 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 weeps like a child.
People smuggling is not illegal in Indonesia. Just a well, as just about all of the authorities are getting a cut of the trade. Ali has to pay them all so the desperate people he is trying to help can get to safety. So for the Australian Federal Police to arrest Ali they have to get him to Thailand. Ali is betrayed, and the AFP arrested him in Thailand on a false passport charge, then arrested for people smuggling. He was extradited to Australia and tried in a Darwin court on people smuggling charges but thank heavens for Australian lawyers and courts. After hearing all the evidence Justice Mildren says -
“....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 is sentenced to jail and with time already served only spends another 21months. On his release a DIAC Officer tries to trick him in to going back to Iraq voluntarily, but he wisely refuses to sign and makes a claim for asylum. He spends time in Villawood while the Howard Government, and then the Ministers of the Rudd and Gillard Government’s, angry at the court’s decision and sentence, when the Government had wanted to make an example of him to pander to marginal seat prejudice, spitefully keep him in detention. It is only when asylum seeker activists take up his case he finally is granted a Removal Pending Bridging Visa, which means the government can send him back to Iraq at a time of their 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 watches the parliamentary debate in 2012.He hears Julia Gillard and Minister Chris Bowen talk about “the people smugglers business model” He laughs and asks -
“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 where ever 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?