Unraveling the Mystery of People Smuggling Networks

By Marie Ngiam

Much has been written about the complicity of people smugglers and their networks in transporting asylum seekers to Australian shores. In Australia, the arrival of “boat people” has generated intense political debate, especially since the Tampa incident in 2001. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd described people smugglers as “engaged in the world’s most evil trade and [to] represent the absolute scum of the earth”, whilst current Prime Minister Julia Gillard called people smuggling “an evil trade to be punished”. Nevertheless, a viable and acceptable political solution continues to elude the government on this issue, as demonstrated by the failure of the much maligned “Malaysian Solution”. This article brings a new dimension to this much discussed issue by focusing on the nature of people smuggling networks. How are they structured? How do they operate?

People smuggling feeds on the desperation faced by people seeking to flee their countries of origin in search of better lives. The impetus ranges from social and economic reasons to those fleeing wars or political persecution. In these situations, there is no shortage of people smugglers waiting to exploit desperate people. In fact, this lucrative activity is estimated by the International Organization for Migration to generate a turnover worth US$10 billion per year.

Yet what do we know of these smuggling networks?

As a category of organised crime, academics have noted how there are two models of people smuggling networks. Firstly, there is the traditional model with its hierarchical and pyramid-like structure. It is centralised and consists of vertical relations between members, governed by clear divisions of labour and chains of command. Andreas Schloenhardt notes that members at the lower levels of the hierarchy have little or no sophisticated knowledge, similar to commercial corporations. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the enterprise or the network model which is adaptable and flexible, consisting largely of horizontal relationships amongst its members. This allows for a degree of independence from decisions and knowledge of head managers, thus ensuring greater flexibility and adaptability to consumer demand as well as law enforcement measures.

Smugglers are familiar with various domestic law enforcement measures and maritime law as well.

Despite suggestions by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime that smuggling operations are reflective of the enterprise model, these networks have displayed much diversity in their organisational as well as operational structure. This suggests that not all people smuggling networks can be characterised in the same way. In particular, smuggling networks operating in Indonesia and targeting asylum seekers to be transported to Australia  show much diversity. Rebecca Tailby from the Australian Institute of Criminology observes that their degree of criminal involvement and sophistication varies from loose amateur groups concentrating on particular routes, through to transnational crime groups specialising in trafficking migrants for subsequent exploitation.

Not surprisingly, empirical research on smuggling networks in Indonesia has generated differing views. Sue Hoffman suggests that people smuggling operations in Indonesia are usually grass roots affairs, originating from within stranded refugee or local Indonesian communities. As such, transnational crime groups are unlikely to be behind all smuggling networks targeting Australia as the destination. In contrast, Tony McInerny and Mary Crock have noted that smuggling networks based in Indonesia have become increasingly covert and highly lucrative professional criminal enterprises while smaller smuggling operations have been eliminated. Fiona David strengthens this view by pointing out how interceptions of sea vessels have revealed highly organised and highly sophisticated operations, in large part due to the involvement of organized crime groups.

People smuggling networks in Indonesia have also proven to be extremely adaptable and resilient within the environment in which they operate. A surge in maritime arrivals in September 2008 after a hiatus of several years has prompted Peter Munro to suggest that smuggling networks were able to resume operations almost immediately. He puts forward the theory that some smugglers never left Indonesia during the hiatus, while others who returned to their homes in the Middle East, West and South Asia subsequently returned to Indonesia. These networks were not dismantled, but rather remained dormant until favourable circumstances resumed. Munro further observes how these smuggling networks are able to evolve and withstand tightening law enforcement measures and exploit loopholes in legislation, coastal surveillance, immigration procedures and border controls. In doing so, they have shown adaptability in their range of tactics used to combat law enforcement measures.

The financiers who reap the profits of smuggling operations are not directly involved in the commission of the crime and, according to Hoffman, are “effectively untouchable.”

One strategy is to tow “rescued” asylum seeker vessels to Christmas Island. This is because all vessels are bound to aid people in distress and smugglers cannot be penalised for it. It also suggests that smugglers are familiar with various domestic law enforcement measures and maritime law as well. Other tactics include the use of juveniles in operations, knowing that they will likely receive lighter sentences if caught. In fact, the proliferation of the use of juveniles in people smuggling operations has prompted the Australian Human Rights’ Commission’s Inquiry into the Treatment of Individuals Suspected of People Smuggling Offences Who Say They Are Children. Phil Lynch Executive Director of Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre notes that a large number of children, some as young as 12, have been detained … for extraordinarily long periods of time.”

Ultimately, smuggling operations rely on the involvement of a range of actors. Andreas Schloenhardt indicates that this includes a wide spectrum, from financiers who invest money in the smuggling operation unknown to lower level employees or individuals being smuggled, to recruiters: the middlemen between the financiers and customers. Other actors include informers who gather information on border surveillance, immigration procedures and regulations, enforcers who police asylum seekers and maintain order among them as well as debt collectors who are in charge of collecting fees in transit or destination countries. Lastly, local guides and crew members in transit countries are employed by smugglers to charter smuggling vessels. In fact, Khalid Koser widens this group by suggesting that corrupt public officials in immigration and law enforcement as well as airline staff in transit countries have been found to be complicit in the trade, especially among international smuggling networks. Appearing on the ABC’s Big Ideas program, he notes that these actors are not “third world crooks” but people working at airports, international airlines, and even British Embassy personnel.

While “top” smugglers are yet to be identified, they should nevertheless be distinguished from hired service providers. The latter consist of local smuggling groups who have been outsourced to perform the actual smuggling. In Indonesia, these local smuggling groups are local Indonesian fishermen, farmers and other people living in stressed economic conditions. They represent boat crew members who transport asylum seekers to Australian waters. In contrast, the financiers who reap the profits of smuggling operations are not directly involved in the commission of the crime and, according to Hoffman, are “effectively untouchable.”

A return to the drawing board for a more extensive and exhaustive initiative between our regional neighbours, especially with countries from which these networks operate, is necessary.

There is also evidence suggesting that smuggling networks diversify into other criminal activities. During the Regional Bali Process, Foreign Ministers around the Asia-Pacific Region indicated how smuggling networks were orchestrated by criminals involved in other illicit activities such as drug trafficking, document fraud, money laundering, arms smuggling and other transnational crimes. The National Crime Authority similarly linked illegal migration, heroin dependency, some instances of prostitution and associated criminal activity. One example involves the line between people smuggling and people trafficking being blurred. Migrants may voluntarily use the services of smugglers and consent to being smuggled initially but later find themselves in situations where they are victimised or exploited by traffickers.

This is usually the case where the terms that are being consented to are fraudulent or deceitful, nullifying their initial consent. The possibility of this occurring was illustrated when the government initially put forward the Malaysian Solution. The Age published a report describing how people smugglers devised a new “travel now pay later method”. The report is based on interviews with Afghans in Indonesia, who pointed out that this method provided asylum seekers passage from Indonesia to Australia by boat for as little as $US500 upfront, with the rest paid after they are granted residency and find work in Australia. It raises the possibility of debt bondage occurring in Australia, should they fail to pay smugglers the remaining amount which in turn transforms a smuggling situation into one of human trafficking.

Despite the furore surrounding people smugglers and their networks, and the desire for a one-dimensional quick-fix “solution”, it is evident that this issue is complex and multi-faceted. The networks remain largely shrouded in mystery, and existing research has generated differing opinions. Even the definition of “people smugglers” is unclear. In particular, judges presiding over cases involving Indonesian fishermen arrested on smuggling charges have argued that organisers of smuggling syndicates as opposed to individuals such as Indonesian boat crew should be distinguished. The latter are not said to be “people smugglers”, but merely facilitators who make possible the journey for asylum seekers. They are mostly impoverished and uneducated Indonesian fishermen who navigate boats into Australian waters and are paid by profiteering members of criminal syndicates.

While the Australian government has already put much effort into curbing this scourge, it is evident from the various news reports that more boat people have been arriving. Much more therefore needs to be done in order to stamp out people smuggling. Although this is by no means an easy task, perhaps the starting point would be to focus on the empirical research on people smuggling networks targeting Indonesia. A return to the drawing board for a more extensive and exhaustive initiative between our regional neighbours, especially with countries from which these networks operate, is necessary. Targeting and demonising the people smugglers alone will not resolve the issue.

Marie Ngiam is an Asia-Pacific Studies (Honours) and Law undergraduate at the Australian National University. This article was taken from research she conducted while an intern at the Australian Parliament with Mr Michael Keenan MP, Shadow Minister for Justice, Customs and Border Protection.