By Sonia Nair. This review is part of our December 2012 and January 2013 focus on Asylum Seekers.
Sydney filmmaker Robin de Crespigny never intended to write a political book. But in a time when asylum seekers are the equivalent of a bipartisan punching bag and the terms “boat people”, “illegals” and “queue jumpers” have come to characterise our daily vernacular, The People Smuggler is inevitably political.
In the book, De Crespigny expertly traces Iraqi refugee-cum-people smuggler Ali Al Jenabi’s life as part of a large family in Saddam Hussein’s war-ravaged and suspicion-fraught state of Iraq across two continents and at least six countries to his Australian trial, imprisonment and subsequent detention in Villawood. By detailing the epic breadth of Ali’s journey – replete with uprisings, repressions, imprisonments, desperate exoduses traversing mountains and boarding ships on high seas – de Crespigny paints a stunning portrayal of the incredible capacity of the human spirit to persevere in the harshest of circumstances.
… are people smugglers the “scum of the earth” we have been led to believe or are they disempowered people caught in desperate situations?
Amid politically-charged debates about borders and citizenship, The People Smuggler is a significant piece of literature which begets the crucial question – are people smugglers the “scum of the earth” we have been led to believe or are they disempowered people caught in desperate situations?
In a talk that was preceded by the presentation of the Future Justice Medal to Monash Law student Chris Varney – de Crespigny discussed the challenges in writing People Smuggler, shed light on Ali’s difficult journey and deftly answered pertinent questions surrounding the politicised landscape of refugees, asylum seekers and people smugglers.
The seeds of the book were first sown when De Crespigny was visited by advocates in 2008 who wanted her to write a movie script revolving around Ali’s trials and tribulations, and the injustice of his situation at the time – having been in detention for two years after his release from prison.
… in an astonishing decision Ali was only jailed for four years as opposed to the prescribed 35 when the presiding judge compared his actions to Oskar Schindler’s rescue of hundreds of Jews during World War II.
Driven by the need to get his family to Australia, Ali became a people smuggler. After a betrayal that resulted in Ali being tried in Australia he was found guilty for people smuggling, but in an astonishing decision Ali was only jailed for four years as opposed to the prescribed 35 when the presiding judge compared his actions to Oskar Schindler’s rescue of hundreds of Jews during World War II.
Motivated by a desire to portray the reality that confront many people smugglers, de Crespigny embarked on a journey that took three years and countless weekly meetings with Ali where she gradually gained his confidence – not an easy feat considering Ali grew up under Saddam Hussein’s mistrustful reign and his subversive attempts at building an army of secret police.
“What made him stand up after being knocked down every day? His life story was too epic for a movie and had to be told in a book. I wanted to portray what it’s really like to be in that situation, it’s not black and white despite what we’re led to believe.
“So many refugees don’t want to talk about what they’ve been through but they want us to know and understand their reality of leaving everything behind.”
The People Smuggler goes into every aspect of Ali’s life, providing insight into a tumultuous journey that is characterised by self-sacrifice, excruciating uncertainty, difficult decisions and the battle to uphold one’s dignity in an impossible situation – a reality few Australians are familiar with and a portrayal rendered effective because of the very illusion that it debunks.
Instead of neatly fitting into defined parameters dictating that people smugglers are heartless profit-mongering criminals, Ali is painted as a man with a very strong sense of morality, deep respect, great love for his family, a sense of humour, and tremendous self-awareness of his plight and the subsequent choices it forced him to make.
De Crespigny interspersed readings from her book – full of painstaking attention to detail, a flair for storytelling and evocative scenes of love, loss and heartbreak – with well-informed facts to expose the fallacy that asylum seekers are “queue jumpers” and “criminals”.
Although many labour under the misapprehension that people smugglers are in the business for the money, de Crespigny said much of the proceeds go towards buying boats and to top government officials and corrupt authorities such as the police and navy.
And despite the mistaken view still propagated by politicians, de Crespigny reiterated the fact that asylum seekers have the right under international law to apply for asylum – it is not “illegal”.
“There is this incredible prejudice about people who come on boats. We came on boats – are we afraid of ourselves?” de Crespigny said, while highlighting the fact that 98 per cent of asylum seekers come by air and are subsequently released into community.
“People Smuggler puts a face on something that has been demonised to such an extent that we as people have become irrational.”
And despite the fact that many people think refugees come in droves to Australia to have a “party”, de Crespigny said nothing could be further from the truth. “Most people want to stay right near their [home] countries; they don’t want to leave what makes home home.”
Ali now resides with his mother and siblings in Sydney but subsists on a bridging visa – meaning he can be deported at any given moment, cannot find work and is unable bring his wife and child to Australia – a “miserable” existence in de Crespigny’s words.
Armed with a fiery passion, a poetic eloquence and an unfailing sense of what is right and wrong, de Crespigny made a call-out to her fellow Australians to relinquish their fear of asylum seekers and issued a plea on behalf of Ali.
“People Smuggler puts a face on something that has been demonised to such an extent that we as people have become irrational. People smugglers are not evil, they don’t convince people to get on boats. People get on boats themselves, they think about what they’re running from – certain death.
“The book was written to have justice for Ali,” de Crespigny said as she embarks on a mission to help Ali get a permanent visa.
To write to Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen on behalf of Ali, click here.