The people-smuggler debate from the prism of an asylum seeker

By Veronica Sullivan | 28 Jan 15

Confessions of a People-Smuggler | Scribe Publications

Dawood Amiri’s Confessions of a People-Smuggler describes his experiences on both sides of the people-smuggling industry: as a desperate refugee attempting to escape religious and cultural persecution via a boat to Australia; and later as a trusted and successful people-smuggler whose services were sought by scores of other asylum seekers hoping to do the same. This double perspective is rare. As was previously explored in Robin de Crespigny’s book The People Smuggler, the majority of people-smugglers are portrayed as opportunistic Indonesian nationals, rather than refugees themselves. Amiri’s memoir is a detailed, insider’s account of the growth and decline of the Indonesian people-smuggling trade, depicted through the prism of his own experiences.

Amiri’s foray into people smuggling originated from him being an asylum seeker himself. An ethnic Hazara, his family fled Afghanistan for the relative safety of Pakistan when he was still young. As he approached adulthood, terrorism and hostility towards his community were encouraged by the growth of the Taliban, and suicide bombings and targeted killings of Hazaras increased. Amiri moved to Iran, but ongoing instability there eventually led him to Indonesia, after which he planned to travel to Australia via boat in order to seek asylum.

Australia, he explains, “was renowned … as a good and democratic country where our people could live without fear of terrorism or the Taliban”. However, Indonesian authorities caught him shortly before he boarded a boat to Christmas Island, and Amiri spent a lengthy period of time in a Sumatran detention centre. Shortly after his release from detention, Amiri became a gopher in a successful people-smuggling ring, hoping to raise money to pay for a second attempt to reach Australia.

Amiri’s experiences and those of his fellow refugees provide some explanation as to why so many asylum seekers make the difficult and often dangerous choice to board a boat to Australia. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s decision in November last year to block the claims of refugees who arrived in Indonesia after July 2014 becomes especially significant in this context. Refugees with backgrounds similar to Amiri’s are now excluded from seeking refugee status in Australia via official processes.

Amiri writes that the ineffectuality of NGOs tasked with processing claims is an ongoing source of frustration for asylum seekers awaiting processing, and that there is a widely-held perception that “politicians and peace-making organisations play excellent games with sincere and naïve civilians”.

According to his own account, Amiri is an anomaly amongst people-smugglers. Amiri suggests that his atypical lack of self-interest sets him apart from many people-smugglers higher up in the food chain driven purely by financial gain.

“As soon as I had started working for the asylum-seekers,” he writes, “I felt a heartfelt, honest, and humane dedication to them, even though the world was treating them like lepers.”

His primary motivation, he says, was altruism: a desire to provide for his family (not himself) first, and to help desperate asylum seekers second. If the latter provided him with the financial means to successfully achieve the former, Amiri was not averse to profiting from his transportation of refugees (top-tier people-smugglers can make up to US$60,000 from one boatload of refugees successfully transported to Australia, though Amiri never reached this level of income). Many grateful refugees, whose safe passage to Australia Amiri did successfully arrange, have subsequently supported him by sending him money during his imprisonment.

While Amiri’s desire to help asylum seekers and his devotion to his family is admirable, he is certainly not a saint. His good intentions do not detract from the horrific tragedy which now defines his career as a people-smuggler – in June 2012, a boat carrying over 200 asylum seekers whose passage he had arranged capsized off Christmas Island. 110 passengers survived; six bodies were recovered and up to 100 others were never found. Amiri subsequently received a six-year prison sentence.

“Bachelard accurately recognised that Amiri’s story was a significant perspective in Australia’s national narrative around asylum seekers, and one which had hitherto been absent from discussions playing out in Australia’s media and political spheres.”

Shortly after being incarcerated, he contacted other people-smugglers from jail, and once again resumed his role of organising boats to Australia for desperate asylum seekers. “My original quest to help asylum-seekers remained unquenched,” he claims, while also admitting that though he was imprisoned, he “felt driven to find a job outside to help ease [his] worries”.

After several further botched attempts to organise boats while still in prison, he eventually reluctantly abandoned his people-smuggling career, recognising that due to an influx of crooked dealers and unsafe vessels, “the people-smuggling scheme had become a disaster”. Confessions of a People-Smuggler was written from within the Indonesian prison where he remains today.

Amiri’s memoir is a lengthy testimony of his career in people-smuggling. Since his initial arrest, he has passed through various Indonesian prisons, and been tried at several courts both as an asylum seeker and a people-smuggler. The contents of this memoir were initially relayed to Amiri’s friend and confidante, Fairfax journalist Michael Bachelard, who encouraged him to share his story. Bachelard accurately recognised that Amiri’s story was a significant perspective in Australia’s national narrative around asylum seekers, and one which had hitherto been absent from discussions playing out in Australia’s media and political spheres. All too often, these debates overlook the individual lives that are directly impacted by the overarching actions and legislation of the Australian government.

Amiri is not a gifted writer. The narrative voice is stilted, and his focus on listing sums of money can be distracting (though these are admittedly relevant when describing the payments received by people-smugglers for each passenger’s journey, the bribes paid to prison guards, and commissions taken by law-makers and enforcers within Indonesia’s corrupt judicial system).

Amiri’s constant declarations of his unimpeachable moral code also serve to undermine his own supposedly modest nature. However, the relationships and attachments that motivate many of his actions are far from inconceivable – often, they are utterly relatable. The details of Amiri’s story may in some respects be unique, but many of his experiences have universal resonance. His path to becoming a people-smuggler is representative of the experiences common to many in similar situations – a desire to better his life and escape violent persecution.

Amiri is sometimes unlikeable, his hubris off-putting and his choices open to criticism, but his flaws are evidence of his humanity. He cannot be reduced to the soulless monster depicted by the Australian government and media, a criminal disposing of his human cargo without any thought to their safety. Confessions of a People-Smuggler provides a crucial insight into one individual’s complex and difficult journey, and the sequence of events that drove him there.