Indonesia A Hub For Human-Trafficking Gang Bosses

Indonesia a hub for human-trafficking gang bosses

By Jonathan Manthorpe
Vancouver Sun
October 23, 2009

They have suitably piratical names like Ali Cobra and Suparman Tong, but there is nothing swashbuckling about the lives these men lead.

All too often they bring death or years of slavery.

Cobra and Suparman are in prison in Indonesia. They were arrested in May when they organized the breakout from a detention centre of 18 Afghan asylum-seekers.

The refugees were put on a fishing boat bound for Australia, but the vessel capsized in stormy seas and nine of the refugees drowned.

Indonesia has become a hub of people-smuggling in recent years as regional wars, fear of ethnic cleansing or mere desire for economic opportunity drive thousands of people to seek supposed safety in countries like Canada and Australia.

Traffickers' fees can run to tens of thousands of dollars and all too often refugees who cannot pay, sign on for years of bonded labour akin to slavery at their destination to pay off the debt.

Indonesia is a favourite hub because it has no laws against human trafficking and only minor penalties for breaching the vague rules governing migration.

That's why Captain Bram — real name Abraham Lauhenapessy — was in a position to organize the boat, now tied up in the west Java port of Merak after capture by the Indonesian navy, for 250 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers who wanted to go to Australia.

There are suspicions that Captain Bram also organized the voyage of the Ocean Lady, which was detained off the B.C. coast last week with 76 would-be migrants, apparently Sri Lankan Tamils, on board.

Captain Bram is fresh out of prison after serving 20 months of the two-year sentence he was handed in 2007 for breaking Indonesia's migration laws.

He was found on the boat at Merak pretending to be a crew member and was arrested by Indonesian police. Indeed, one of the reasons the boat got captured was that he ordered it to turn around when it failed to make a sea rendezvous with another boat, and he feared being taken to Australia, where he would face 20 years in prison.

Indonesia is a much better bet for Captain Bram. He has been arrested there many times, but is seldom charged because of lack of evidence or because money is persuasive.

His time may be running out as intense cooperation in recent years between Australian and Indonesian police and intelligence agencies has unmasked much about the kingpins of human trafficking and their networks.

The volume of people trying to get to Australia has intensified since the election of the Labour Party government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in late 2007. The belief has bounced around Asia that the Rudd government is soft on illegal immigrants and refugees.

Already this year, 34 boats bringing asylum seekers have been identified by Australian authorities and 1,700 people detained awaiting judgment on their cases.

What is not known is how many hundreds of people drown when the unseaworthy — and cheap — craft favoured by the smugglers sink en route.

Most of the would-be migrants come from the war-torn countries of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Thousands run out of money and get stranded in Indonesia. In the west Java hill resort of Puncak, for example, there are now so many Afghans awaiting passage to Australia that local restaurants serve Afghan food.

Two Pakistanis, Ali Reza and Ali Sadat, are the big bosses of the trafficking of people from Afghanistan and Pakistan. These men usually travel with four bodyguards and are very dangerous. It was Reza who organized the January detention camp breakout for the Afghans for which Cobra and Suparman are doing time.

Reza hasn't been seen in Indonesia since February.

A fourth kingpin is Iranian Majid Mahmood, a regular star on the Indonesian police most-wanted list.

Most journeys to Australia begin with flights from Pakistan to Malaysia. Malaysia is a favourite transit point because, in a wonderfully useful piece of religious brotherly solidarity for the traffickers, it does not require visas for people coming from Muslim countries.

From there it is an easy hop to Indonesia or even directly by boat to Australia through the tortuous waterways of the Indonesian archipelago's 16,500 islands.