Reception committee for people-smuggler
8 October 2001
In his Perth cell, Kais Asfoor must be wondering what made him fly into the arms of his adversaries
FOR more than three months, Kais Asfoor tidied up the loose ends of a thriving people-smuggling business in Indonesia and made plans to go abroad. During that entire time he harboured a singular and ultimately -- for him -- tragic delusion: that he would be safe if he went to Australia.
Asfoor was one of the principals behind the most successful Indonesia-based syndicate trafficking illegal immigrants by boat to Australia's north coast. Why he thought he could safely travel to the country where he was most keenly wanted for these crimes is a question Asfoor must be now asking himself.
Sitting in a Perth cell, he faces charges that could see him spend the next 20 years behind bars and pay a fine of $7.5 million. Gone is the high life of expensive restaurants and nightclubs where the multi-millionaire Asfoor could be a lauded and pampered figure.
On Friday, he came off a Qantas flight from Jakarta at Perth airport at about 3am. At immigration he was discreetly taken aside by Australian Federal Police and later that morning he was charged with illegally bringing 1698 people to Australia on 17 boats between June 1999 and March this year. The good life was over.
The key to Asfoor's downfall was his passport and a mistaken belief he could evade immigration authorities.
Early this year, Asfoor turned up at the Australian embassy in Jakarta with a forged Turkish passport in the name of Iman Dogan and requested a tourist visa.
Officials duly processed the visa and returned the passport, and Asfoor made arrangements to fly to Australia from Denpasar in Bali. It did not take long for Australian authorities to discover that the man they had been tracking as a people-smuggler for the previous two years had suddenly adopted a new identity and acquired a new passport.
Plans were set in train to arrest him on his arrival in Australia, in what promised to be the biggest coup in Australia's war against the people-smuggling rings. Australian immigration officials had by late 1999 established an extensive dossier on Kais and other members of his syndicate, but they remained tantalisingly out of reach.
Here was an opportunity for police to strike back and, amazingly, one of the Mr Bigs of people-smuggling was coming to them. But then, frustratingly, for reasons known only to Asfoor, he changed his travel arrangements. The visa expired. Authorities could only wait and hope.
Some time later, Asfoor returned to the embassy to seek a new tourist visa. Again it was granted and hopes of an arrest were revived.
It is easy to see why the authorities were so eager to lay their hands on Asfoor. The evidence points to him being one of the key figures in the people trade -- certainly the most important to be taken into custody.
Immigration Department documents show that during five months in 1999, the ring he was connected to sent eight boats to Australia with 854 passengers on board. This armada included the Adelong, which contained the biggest cargo of illegal entrants to successfully make the journey.
Asfoor's syndicate mainly operated out of the eastern islands of the Indonesian archipelago and was one of two syndicates dominating the business. He had two principal partners -- Ahmed Aloung (known as 'Ahmed the Indonesian') and Majid Mahmood. Asfoor, a Palestinian born in Iraq in 1970, and Mahmood, an Iraqi born in 1958, worked closely together in recruiting passengers, particularly Iraqis and Afghans. Both men entered Indonesia in the mid-'90s and were granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1998.
As early as 1996, Asfoor had applied for entry to Australia and been rejected. A year later he was refused immigration clearance at Perth airport and returned to Indonesia. Authorities only became aware of his involvement in people-smuggling in 1999. Back in Indonesia, Asfoor married Aloung's sister, whom authorities identified in 1999 as Siti Juleaha, and settled in Indonesia's second biggest city, Surabaya. According to investigations by the Immigration Department, Asfoor bought boats for the trip to Australia using his wife's name.
He also had extensive connections in Australia to assist with the smuggling business. He would usually call a contact in Port Hedland, a Palestinian man who has since left Australia, Hamad Alakla, to confirm the arrival of boats. Some of his connections are particularly troubling.
Immigration officials claim one member of the syndicate, who himself boarded a refugee boat to Australia, had worked for one of Saddam Hussein's execution squads. He was believed to be evading family members of two boatpeople who drowned.
Authorities say Asfoor also has a brother now living in Perth. Former passengers on Asfoor's boats have alleged that Australia- based relatives of the smuggler have collected money from family members of asylum-seekers and transferred the funds overseas. Since 1999, this syndicate will have raised millions of dollars. As a rough rule, each passenger would part with about $US5000, meaning the 1698 passengers linked to Asfoor would have raised $US8.5 million, with only about 20 per cent being spent on costs. One of the challenges for Australian authorities will be to trace the money trail, now that Asfoor is in custody.
The arrest and charging of Asfoor is undeniably a big victory for authorities in the war against smuggling. It sends a signal to the smugglers of Australian authorities' determination to bring them to justice.
But it is unlikely to cause too much disruption to the business. Asfoor appears to have been planning to relocate for some time and his associates are obviously still in the trade.
The record suggests that when one syndicate leader is put out of business, plenty of pretenders are willing to take their place. As one official noted: 'We don't have so many Mr Bigs but a lot of Mr Big-Enoughs.'