Crackdown Leading Fishers To Smuggling Syndicates

Crackdown leading fishers to smuggling syndicates

Tom Allard
The Age
April 17, 2009

A CRACKDOWN by the Federal Government on illegal fishing in its waters has provided an added incentive for Indonesian fishermen to offer their boats and expertise to take asylum seekers to Australia, even if they know they risk a prison sentence.

Fishing boats have set out south from West Timor and nearby islands for centuries, reaching as far as Ashmore Reef, inside Australian territory, the outcrop where many boatloads of asylum seekers have landed, including the boat that exploded yesterday. Fishing has never been lucrative but a vigorous effort by Australian Customs to catch perpetrators has closed off a traditional source of food and income for Indonesian fishermen.

Australian authorities have sought prison terms for illegal fishers, and confiscated boats, resulting in many Indonesian fishermen being more inclined than ever to take the large sums on offer by people-smuggling syndicates. “There's a tendency for the fishermen to hope for someone to rent their boat to smuggle people, because if they get caught fishing across the border, they are facing the same consequences anyway,” said Rudenim, an official at the immigration detention facility in West Timor.

The chances of completing the journey and returning home without being detected were slim, but Rudenim said poor fishermen believe it is a price worth paying. Syndicates pay between 10 million ($1271) and 50 million rupiahs for the trip, plus fuel. While that amount is shared between the boat's owner and its crew, it is still a small fortune for people who typically live on $3 to $4 a day.

“Fisherman tell their family it might be four to six months, depending on when they get deported,” Rudenim said. “But with the money they make and leave behind, it's enough to cover their family's cost of living, and even have some left, until they are back.”

Millions of Indonesians work overseas, often staying away for years before reuniting with their families. A stretch in an Australian prison for a couple of years is not viewed as particularly harsh compared to working in dangerous jobs on construction sites in, say, the Middle East.

Many younger crew members are deported rather than prosecuted. Boat owners, however, have been sentenced to prison terms of up to six years.