Historians' Watch

The ‘Criminal’ People Smuggler and the Illegalisation of Refugee Flight

On March 13, the Tory government presented a new piece of legislation, the Illegal Migration Bill, to the British parliament. The bill aims to detain and permanently remove anyone entering the UK “illegally” and is designed, according to Rishi Sunak, to “stop the boats.” Stopping the boats is a familiar refrain to Australian ears. Just over twenty years ago, the Australian Liberal Coalition government came to power promising exactly the same thing. Two decades on, the consequences in humanitarian and financial terms have been disastrous. While a number of commentators in the British press have compared the rhetoric of stopping the boats to the 1930s, they might have looked no further than Australian politics of the 2000s. 

In fact, Home Secretary Suella Braverman, the bill’s most public defender, is copying from the Australian playbook. The conservative British government has been learning from Australian politicians who were part of the inner circle that first introduced the hard-line border protection policies that created the now familiar, brutal regime of offshore processing, temporary protection visas, and boat turn backs. Braverman’s predecessor Priti Patel took advice directly from Australia’s ex-prime minister (and now advisor to the UK Board of Trade) Tony Abbott, to create a plan to punish refugees who arrived to British shores by boat. Ex-foreign minister Alexander Downer, who was part of the same political regime as Abbott, has also advised the current government on offshore processing, the practice of removing people seeking asylum to a third country, in this case Rwanda. Abbott’s and Downer’s party created an offshore processing regime for refugees who attempted to come by boat to Australia, by paying the poverty-stricken Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus, in Papua New Guinea, to house them. Their regime oversaw a new politicisation of Australia’s approach to refugees and migration that has become increasingly detached from any commitment to the humanitarian principles underpinning the original convention on the rights of refugee, a convention that Australia proudly helped write and of which it was one of the earliest signatories.

The moral justifications for these draconian policies were the same as the ones British voters are hearing today. Australia’s borders, so the public were repeatedly informed, were at breaking point under the strain of the hordes of boat people appearing over the horizon. Behind these hordes stood the shadowy figure of the people smuggler. In the past few decades, the people smuggler has become a convenient distraction from the complex push factors that compel people to leave their homes. It is also a rhetorical device that criminalises refugee flight. It evokes a clandestine world of unscrupulous individuals connected to mafia networks, preying on vulnerable people, and undermining proper, orderly, and humanitarian migration processes. It works as a device to set up an imaginary opponent, and to make the project of excluding people who seek asylum into a battle. For politicians such as Braverman, talking about “the smuggling gangs” and their “business model” serves a political purpose.  It creates a strong-armed image of a leader with the necessary muscle to defend a fearful nation’s borders. And it’s not just conservative politicians who invoke the spectre of the people smuggler. ‘People smugglers are engaged in the world’s most evil trade and they should all rot in jail because they represent the absolute scum of the earth,’ thundered Australian Labour Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2009, in just one notable example.

Stop the Boats – Operation Sovereign Borders. Australian Government border protection campaign “No Way” 2013. Wikimedia Commons.

Australia’s fear and loathing of the people smuggler is shared by wealthy countries worldwide. The people smuggler is personified in the western imagination by unscrupulous men patrolling Turkish beaches, offering passage across the Mediterranean to hundreds of thousands of people from Africa and the Middle East. It is true that people smuggling can be a lucrative business. As refugee numbers have swelled to their biggest since the Second World War, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that in 2016 alone, 2.5 million migrants were smuggled for an economic return of US$5.5–7 billion, a staggering amount of money equivalent to what America or the EU spent during the same period on humanitarian aid.

But people smuggling is not as new or simplistic a phenomenon as suggested by the language of crisis usually employed by our politicians and the media. In 2021, we published Smuggled: An Illegal History of Journeys to Australia, in response to the discourses around people smuggling and refugees. The book tells the story of people smuggling in Australia’s migrant history, from the Second World War through to the present, including Holocaust survivors, escapees from behind the Iron Curtain, Vietnamese fleeing civil war and, most recently, people from countries in Africa and the Middle East running from famine and violence. We show that many who belonged to these migrant groups were helped or smuggled, at some point in their journey, through gates that were officially closed. Taken together, these stories combine to tell a century-long history of war and displacement rarely heard in the annals of Australian migration history, but which also offer new insights into the liminal world of mountain passes, oceans, airports and islands that make up this illegalised geography of the asylum seeker and the refugee.

These stories have not yet made it into the classical narratives of migration, partly because we haven’t tended to see illegality as part of this history. Ironically, perhaps, given that immigration nowadays is mostly defined in criminal and warlike terms, in need of closer monitoring, tracking, regulation and securitisation on an entirely new scale. At the same time, Australia’s national map has been redrawn in the same language of illegal immigration, with front entry points and back doors, “arcs of instability” and uninhabited, vulnerable, coastlines. The book reminds us that ‘illegalised travellers’ are part of immigration history, and that our perspective towards them is shaped by where we sit in time and place.

The official appearance of the people smuggler in Australia dates to the boat crossings that began with small numbers in the late 1990s, and peaked in the early 2000s. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it was common to read hyperbolic oceanic headlines of the tides, floods, tsunamis and tidal waves of refugees, bearing down on Australia’s fragile coastline. These accompanied images of rotting ferries capsizing under the strain of dangerously heavy loads of exhausted passengers sailing across the Timor Sea between Indonesia and Australia. ‘Stopping the boats’ quickly became the war cry of successive governments, particularly in the wake of the ‘Tampa Affair’ of 2001, in which one of the biggest container ships in the world became the unlikely carrier for 433 asylum seekers saved from their sinking wooden boat, the Palapa. The Tampa was forbidden by the Howard Government to land its human cargo on Christmas Island, thus kicking off the infamous ‘Pacific Solution’ of offshore detention on the island nation of Nauru and the Papua New Guinean island of Manus.

It was at this time that blame also shifted onto the people smuggler as the main cause of refugee drownings, in keeping with a shift in official rhetoric from a focus on security and border protection to a focus on ‘stopping the deaths at sea’. As former diplomat and refugee advocate Tony Kevin has written, the tightening of Australia’s border protection, with a raft of policies including excising certain islands and reefs from Australia’s migration zone or turning boats back, did not stop refugees fleeing war, persecution or disaster, but only served to make journeys more deadly.[1] The notion that the illegalisation of unauthorised human movement would lead people to simply stay put in transit countries like Indonesia or Malaysia or somewhere else, where settlement isn’t possible and the only option is to join the ‘queue’ is folly, but it has continued to drive policy.

Ali Ali Jenabi, a convicted people smuggler, tried to imagine the queue asylum seekers are meant to join, that he first heard about in an Australian courtroom. ‘What do they think? That when the secret police are shooting at you, you run down the street yelling, “Where’s the queue? Where’s the queue?”’ There was no UN office in Iraq, he noted, and the nearest one was two countries away in Pakistan. [2] An Iraqi man who had endured imprisonment in Abu Ghraib under Saddam’s regime, he eventually made it to Indonesia. Here, he began to earn money by smuggling people to a small island in Australian waters, seven boats in all, so that he could bring his own family to safety.

As Jenabi’s story suggests, the motivations behind people smuggling are varied and complex. Many who have helped a person undertake an illegal crossing might not recognise themselves as people smugglers. This is borne out by the 2018 UNODC report on smuggling migrants, which noted that as a general pattern, ‘smaller-scale smugglers are either ethnically linked to the territories where they operate, or they share ethnic or linguistic ties with the migrants they smuggle.’

Jenabi was eventually caught by Australian Federal Police in Thailand, after he had brought 500 people safely to Australia, but this is unusual. Indonesian fishermen are usually the ones who have done time for the crime of people smuggling in Australian jails. These are the equivalent of Europe’s foot soldiers, paid to bring clients across a border. Often, Indonesian boat crews are willing to take the risk of being caught and jailed in Australia on mandatory minimum five-year terms, because whatever money they earn is more than what subsistence fishing or farming brings on the small islands of southeast Indonesia, from where most Indonesian people smuggling crews live and work.

What Jenabi’s story also shows is that, contrary to popular assumptions about asylum seekers as passive participants in journeys or routes not of their own making, many are actively involved in decisions about smugglers, routes and destinations. In his own firsthand account, Dawood Amiri also upended the usual classification of people smugglers as criminals feeding off the naivety and desperation of asylum seekers. ‘Honestly, he writes, ‘the people who help asylum-seekers the most are people-smugglers. And these asylum-seekers want to be smuggled.’[3] All of the people whose stories feature in our book were willing participants in illegality. Sometimes, of course, illegality can mean breaking the law to save one’s life in a world where that law has turned the basic moral code upside down, such as, for example, the perverse universe of Nazism. Often, what was illegal at one point in the journey was legal at another.

Fight the far right: No to Tommy Robinson. No to Fortress Britain. London, 9th December 2018. Flicr

That the demonisation of the people smuggler and the policy of offshore processing do not work has been heavily borne out by the Australian example. In the past decade, Australia has spent over $9.5 billion of taxpayers’ money to warehouse people on remote islands in abhorrent conditions. The cruelty and damage inflicted on these people, including children, without access to hope or a decent future, is immeasurable. Around 9 out of 10 children who endured Nauru have suffered deleterious physical health conditions and nearly 80% reported mental health symptoms, with almost half attempting suicide. Nor has the policy stopped people from seeking the services of people smugglers to find a place of safety. The UK should see the Australian example as a cautionary tale, not as one to emulate.

[1] Tony Kevin, Reluctant Rescuers (Canberra: Self-published, 2012).

[2] Robin De Crespigny, The People Smuggler: The True Story of Ali Ali Jenabi (Melbourne: Penguin Books, 2012).

[3] Dawood Amiri, Confessions of a People Smuggler (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014), p. 178.

This article was updated on 29 March to correct minor stylistic errors.

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