‘People Smuggler’ is one of those terms that the right thrust on us freighted with meaning and prejudice. Another is ‘Climate Change’ as a substitute for ‘Global Warming’ which the right as advocates for big business saw (rightly) as carrying a judgement on them and their treatment of atmospheric and ocean pollution as ‘free goods’. Although the right intended ‘Climate Change’ to carry an element of doubt, the weight of scientific evidence, experience and common sense has largely seen it over time absorb most of the meanings of ‘Global Warming’. ‘People Smuggler’ hasn’t been so lucky, though it is clear from this book that they are an essential component of large scale refugee movements.
Dawood Amiri, born in about 1990 (I can’t find a bio.), is an Hazara Muslim whose family fled Afghanistan after Taliban clerics issued a fatwa encouraging what was effectively the genocide of Hazaris – Afghanistan’s third largest ethnic group – by the Pashtun majority. They settled in Quetta, in Pakistan near the Afghan border where Amiri did well at school.
Confessions of a People Smuggler (2014) which I listened to recently is his account of his journey from becoming head of his family while still a teenager, wishing to become an accountant but forced by his family’s poverty to take menial jobs in the middle east, and deciding with his cousin to attempt the difficult journey to Australia, or at least to Christmas Island, an Australian territory off the coast of Indonesia, as a boat person – another term freighted with (adverse) meaning. It is never explained why refugees seeking protection are held in indefinite imprisonment for arriving by boat while the large numbers of visa overstayers who arrive by air are ignored.
Of course the whole boat people thing, while driven by redneck racism, is a smokescreen for big business’s extensive use of cheap foreign labour on ’47a’ visas to hold down blue collar wages while diverting attention and blame to a supposed (and by world standards non-existent) influx of refugees.
Amiri and his cousin drew down on their families’ resources and flew to Malaysia (legally) and then without visas crossed to Indonesia by boat. Some of the details from here on are a bit sketchy as I didn’t/couldn’t take notes. Amiri ends up in an Indonesian detention facility, a gaol by any other name, though one whose governor accepted the prisoners’ parole and left the gates open during the day until the privilege was abused. In fact much of the remainder of the memoir concerns Amiri’s experiences in various Indonesian gaols.
Amiri is highly sceptical of the UNHCR and their officials in BMWs with the whole official refugee process taking years and for only a small proportion of the refugee population. Amiri himself is rejected as he cannot prove he is Afghani.
Back in Jakarta he meets and marries an Indonesian woman and they have a baby. To support them he becomes an agent for a major people smuggler, Billu, assembling groups of refugees to make up a boat load.
There were other boys like me, working for the [people-smuggling] agents, trying to make money and get a free ride to Australia. I had the advantage of being able to speak Farsi, Indonesian and English as well as Urdu. I had a good friend, a Pakistani boy called Faraz, who was a good guy. He was working for an agent called Javed Mehmud Bhat, also known as “Billu”. Faraz and I had the same job – we would get the passengers contact numbers from the agents, collect $200 per person and gather 50 to 100 people in one or two villas a few days before the movement of the boats. We would also collect their mobile phones for security purposes. Confiscating the phones cut them off from communication with the outside world, preventing others from knowing or guessing the date, time or place of the “movement”. This meant [the trip] would not come to the attention of rivals or the police. It was a very important precaution.[extract published in Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Aug. 2014]
Billu puts too many people in the boat and on “22 June , in the morning, the news ﬁnally flashed around the internet, destroying the last of my hopes. A boat carrying more than 200 asylum-seekers had capsized some 90 nautical miles from Christmas Island, leaving only 110 survivors. Seventeen bodies had been retrieved, and the fate of the rest was unknown.”
Amiri is soon arrested and accepts the blame for his involvement, although he believes the Australian government deliberately delayed attempts to rescue the vessel which was known to be in trouble for some days. He spends months in police custody and then in remand, still able to earn a reasonable income supporting refugee movements through his extensive phone contacts in both Indonesia and Pakistan. But eventually his phone is lost, he is convicted and sentenced to what he comes to realise is the relatively light sentence of six years.
Amiri should be released about now, though I cannot find any further info about him. I hope he is able to settle quietly in Indonesia with his wife and child and earn a modest, honest income. But I guess that is unlikely.
Dawood Amiri, Confessions of a People Smuggler, Scribe, Melbourne, 2014. Audiobook: Queensland Narrating Service, read by Hugh Taylor