Merchants of MiseryTempo
No. 42/12, June 13, 2012
Floating on the open sea, Khaliqdad Jamdad, 39, saw visions of his home village on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. In early April, the engine of the ship that was supposed to take him and 82 other fellow travelers to Christmas Island in Australian territorial waters, sputtered and died.
Two days earlier, Khaliqdad's group departed early morning from Pangandaran Beach, West Java. They boarded a motorboat called the Bajini Nassa, crewed by Indonesian sailors who could not speak a word of English.
Next to Khaliqdad, feeling restless, were his wife and four children. The youngest, Sujad, was just 3 years old. This was supposed to be the last leg of their journey, after they left Afghanistan eight months earlier. "I cannot go back," he told Tempo, in early May. "I sold my house and all my possession to pay for this trip."
On the third day their ship drifted eastwards, further away from Christmas Island. They ended on the shores of Wonorogo Beach of Gedangan District in Malang, East Java, hundreds of kilometers from their port of origin. Cold and tired, they were quickly rounded up by the local immigration authorities.
Khaliqdad was fortunate. A week before he left from Pangandaran, another ship had sailed from Denpasar heading towards Ashmore Reef in Australian waters. Carrying more than 50 passengers, the ship was reported missing near Sumbawa off West Nusa Tenggara.
Over the past three years, the number of these boat people landing in Indonesia had increased dramatically. As of December 2011, refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia reached almost 4,000 people, excluding the number of illegal immigrants.
The number of refugee ships reaching Australia has also increased. Three years ago only 61 ships made it to Australian waters. The following year, this doubled to 134 ships carrying more than 6,800 people. The numbers continue to increase.
The Australian and Indonesian governments have had difficulty dealing with these illegal immigrants. The police in both countries are now certain there exists a people-smuggling mafia at work behind the increase in the number of boat people.
"These people have built up their business by taking advantage of people seeking to escape from conflict areas," said Johnny Hutauruk, deputy head of the People Smuggling, Refugee, and Asylum Seekers Help Desk at the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, in mid-May.
For this special task, the government has assigned the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) to monitor people-smuggling activities in various regions. The National Police headquarters has also formed a People Smuggling Task Force under it Crime Investigation Unit.
There is no question that the ring of people smugglers operates like other transnational crime syndicates: using an insulated cell system. Their agents at the local level, for instance, only know the instruction-givers directly above them. There are many players and branches. "It is not easy to track the main players," said Johnny.
In August last year, Khaliqdad Jamdad decided to take his family to Australia. He felt life in conflict-ridden Afghanistan had little future for him. He had no regular job and often sold rice or worked at construction sites just to earn some money to feed and clothe his family. In such a situation, the possibility of undertaking a dangerous trip to First World areas like the United States, Europe, or Australia, is generally felt to be an effort to improve one's life.
So, he sold his home and belongings, and had collected US$23,000 in cash, before seeking an agent who could arrange his journey to the 'promised land.'
Moreover, this was not Khaliqdad's first trip. "I once lived in Australia for a year," he told Tempo. He got there by using an illegal channel, boarding a boat and landing on Christmas Island. "Now I want my children to enjoy a better life."
The agent who was able to arrange Khaliqdad's family excursion was named Ramazan Ali, who was paid US$20,000. According to the custom among many families in Afghanistan and Pakistan, such a large amount of money is not directly paid to the agent. Khaliqdad only had to entrust it with someone who would turn it over to Ramazan once they safely reached Australia.
On the agreed-upon day, Khaliqdad and family crossed over to Pakistan. They were met there by two other agents, colleagues of Ramazan. "They were Hussein Ali and Haji Kholam," he said. Khaliqdad then received air tickets to fly to Bangkok, Thailand. It was the first phase of the trip.
At Suvarnabhumi Airport someone was waiting to collect Khaliqdad's family. This local agent was a Thai national. Traveling by car, the family was then taken to Malaysia. All of their travel documents passports, visas, tickets were thrown away. They were now officially illegal immigrants.
The next stop was the Larkin Bus Station in Johor Baru. Here Khaliqdad and his family joined up with tens of other immigrants. Some were from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and other conflict-ridden areas. They were then taken to the Rengit River, a mangrove forest area south of Johor Baru.
There were small houses along the river for them to stay in. The Rengit River winds through the dense mangrove forest, and into the open sea. This strategic and secluded location is ideal as a departure point to the next transit nation: Indonesia.
When Tempo went there in early May, some of the shacks along the river were empty. However, locals confirmed that the houses were often occupied by Middle Eastern immigrants. "Now is not the season for them to come," said one resident.
Last August, when Khaliqdad's family was there, a Malaysian smuggler looked like was trying to rent some small skiffs so they could cross over to Batam on the territorial waters of Indonesia's Riau Archipelago. "They could also go directly to Australia if they wanted," said one tekong, a local term for captains of such vessels.
According to one tekong who wished to remain anonymous, refugees who want to go directly to Australia, must pay up to 15,000 ringgit or equivalent to more than Rp45 million. "If they just want to reach Batam, it only costs 2,000 ringgit," they said. The refugees are taken by a motorized skiff known as a pompong. The trip takes 2-3 hours.
Once there, they dock at a tiny port on Batam Island or on a small nearby island. Two points which are often used are the docks in Batu Merah and Tanjung Sengkuang.
Senior Police Commissioner Karyoto, Chief of the Batam-Rempang and Galang Police Departments, confirmed an increase in the number of people smuggled in from Johor. "Scores have already been caught," he said. Most recently, in April, the police arrested three tekongs who were transporting illegal immigrants into Mata Ikan Bay.
Khaliqdad and his group manage to avoid being detected by the police. Upon arriving in Batam, they headed for Hang Nadim Airport. A local agent there this time an Indonesian was ready with their flight tickets and other documents.
Their last stop was Cisarua, West Java. "We were placed in a rented house in Kampung Anyer," said Khaliqdad. He and his family lived there for the next eight months. One afternoon, in early April, Khaliqdad's cellular phone rang. It was his agent who informed him that there was a ship sailing for Australia. The family had to get ready to move in less than one day.
Tracking the identities of the local agents who arranged Khaliqdad's journey from Kampung Batu Merah to Cisarua required the assistance of insiders, because communicating with these boat people in Indonesia is difficult. They are reclusive and very suspicious of outsiders.
After socializing with their community for over a month, one asylum-seeker who is close to people-smuggling agents in Jakarta, was finally willing to become a Tempo source. He did this on the strict condition that his identity was kept secret. His life was at stake. "Their network is widespread and I don't want any trouble," he said.
With the help of this source, let's just call him Amir, Tempo was unable to identify the operational levels of smuggling agents in Jakarta. Amir pointed out how they conducted their transactions, arranged for payment, and hired locals as couriers and field observers.
According to Amir, there are at least three levels of people-smuggling agents operating in Indonesia. The bosses are at the highest level. They are the ones who receive the orders to arrange for journeys and coordinate with the players below them.
At this level, one particular smuggler is considered to be the best. He is Sayed Abbas Azzad bin Sayed Abdul Majid. This man from Gaznia, Jahuria, Afghanistan, was once on Interpol's red list. In October 2009, Australia issued red notice A-4055/10-209 and asked that he be extradited from Indonesia.
To be sure, there are other bosses besides Abbas, such as Haji Sakhi and Amanullah Rejai. But these two were arrested and deported last year. This left Abbas as the prime operator. However, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Last August Abbas was caught by police and he is currently detained in Salemba Prison, Central Jakarta.
The arrest of Abbas did not spell the end of his people-smuggling network. His subordinates stand ready to carry out his orders.
To Tempo, Amir showed photos of some of Abbas's closest helpers. There was Muhamad Ali, Kadim Nono, Muhamad Ali Zafari alias Alidiz, Muhamad Ali Cote, and Sajjad Hussein. This is the second-level of the boat-people smuggling network. Some of them remain loyal to their big boss. Others have begun their own business, trying to steal clients left behind by Abbas. Sajjad Hussein has been one of the more successful ones. A year ago, the Australian government officially requested that this Pakistani be extradited.
As in a pyramid, these level-two agents are at the top of their respective networks among the immigrant community. These networks can have many branches. Tempo's investigation in Cisarua, for instance, found one agent known as Habib.
The 55-year-old man from Kurdi, Iraq, came to Indonesia four years ago and immediately started a business smuggling people to Australia. He is reported to dress fashionably, a gold necklace and bracelet as his accessories. "At first, his task was just to look for a house for boat people from Iraq and Iran," said one resident from Cisarua who asked to be identified as Roni. The average cost of renting a house there is Rp400,000 per day.
After a while, Habib started appearing in the town more often, escorting or picking up illegal immigrants. This agent had so many orders that even Roni got some work. "I helped him find villas and places to stay," he said. For Roni, the pay is good, as much as Rp1 million.
Amir corroborated the appearance of this new agent in Cisarua. "His real name is Nabi Momini," he said. These days, however, Habib seems to be lying low. Several locations he visits are empty. Accompanied by Roni, Tempo went around the villages of Cilambar, Tugu Selatan, and Cibeureum all of them in the Cisarua district for two whole days. But no trace of him could be found and Roni claims not to know who Habib works for.
At the lowest level are the local agents. This is the backbone of the syndicate on the ground. As Indonesians, they have more freedom to prepare for the immigrant's journey. They rent boats, contact crewmembers, and get logistics for the trip.
One fairly well-known local agent in Cisarua is Muhamad Tarmidzi alias Anwar Makassar. To Tempo, this man from Malang, East Java, admitted the role he played. "But that was in the past. I'm no longer doing that," he insisted.
Another famous local agent is a man from Papela village, in the East Rote district, East Nusa Tenggara. In April, when Tempo met him, he asked that his real name not be disclosed.
Almost all of the fishermen in Papela are under the control of this agent. They can be hired as ship's crew, mechanics, and even captain of immigrant ships headed for Australia. Their minimum pay for one trip is Rp10 million per person.
The fishermen in Rote are sought after because they are accustomed to hunting for sharks as far as Christmas Island, Australia. "They can find their way without a compass, without GPS (Global Positioning System)," said this local agent. Each ship heading south needs to be manned by three to four fishermen from Rote.
"As soon as a schedule is set up, we are sent money to buy tickets to reach the departure point," said this man. The vessel they will board is already at the dock. "Our work is only to get them there," he added.
Despite the high fees, the fishermen take on great risks. Many drown. If they successfully reach Australia, most of them are arrested. As of last May, 514 Indonesian fishermen have been detained in Australia for cases of people smuggling. At least 30 of them are minors.
Head of the People Smuggling Task Force under the Police's Crime Investigation Unit, Senior Commissioner Budi Santoso, confirmed that the names given by Amir were from the suspected people-smuggling syndicate. "I can only confirm that, but I am unable to give additional information," he said, because the case was still an ongoing investigation.
More definite information came from Commissioner Arya Perdana, an investigator in the task force. "Yes, Sayed Abbas has many agents in Indonesian locations where boat people land," wrote Arya, via email. He is currently on duty as part of a UN peacekeeping force in Haiti.
At the end of May, Tempo was able to meet Sayed Abbas at the prison in Salemba. Unlike most of his photos in the media, Abbas appeared thin and pale. "I've lost 3 kilograms," he said in fluent Indonesian.
He said he came to Indonesia 13 years ago. In Afghanistan, he was a veteran combatant in the war against the Taliban. "I was in the mountains for four years," he said, without bragging. He was good at handling weapons. "It was common to carry a gun."
Unfortunately, his efforts to reach Australia did not have a happy ending. After waiting for five years, he has only obtained asylum-seeker status from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN body which deals with refugees, in Jakarta.
Yet, he denied smuggling thousands of people to Australia. "I have been a taxi driver for as long as I have been here, not a people smuggler," he claimed. In two meetings at the jail, Abbas talked at length about the life he left behind in Afghanistan and the one he led in Jakarta. For all his name dropping of agents linked to the people-smuggling business, he keeps insisting he is not involved.
Abbas also claims not to know Khaliqdad Jamdad, the man with four children who is currently stuck in Sidoarjo, East Java, after his ship capsized last April.
Today, Khaliqdad spends most of his time daydreaming and smoking. "I am almost out of money," said Khaliqdad, three weeks ago, showing his wallet to Tempo, which contained a few Rp10,000 notes.
Located between Malaysia and Australia, Indonesia is a convenient stopover for illegal immigrants seeking a new life in a third country. They attempt by different means to reach Australian waters including resorting to the services of people smugglers. The high number of immigrants desperate to settle in Australia has led to the growth of people smuggling. They say that getting on a boat offered by a smuggler is more promising, despite the dangers to their lives, than holding refugee status for years waiting for a visa.
Taking the express route
After paying US$4,000-6,000 per person, the immigrants are sent to Indonesia. This fee includes a new passport and travel costs. At each stage of the journey they are accompanied by members of the smuggling network some of them local residents. Here are the routes they often cross.
- In groups of 2-4 people, immigrants board an airplane from Karachi (Pakistan) heading for Bangkok (Thailand).
- From Bangkok, the journey by plane continues to Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia).
- Upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur, the immigrants are accommodated in a hotel until groups from other flights can join them.
- The next day the immigrants board a bus at the Larkin bus station (Johor Bahru).
- Picked up at the bus station, the group is taken to Rengit River and Kampung Gambu (Johor Bahru).
- Boarding fishing boats from the neighborhood of Batu Merah (Batam), immigrants enter Indonesia. They are headed for Berakit (Tanjung Pinang), Mata Ikan Bay (Batam), Tanjung Senkuang, and Nongsa Beach (Batam).
- From Batam, some immigrants head for Medan. Some board flights to Jakarta.
- From Medan, immigrants board buses or planes to Jakarta.
- Arriving at the Indonesian capital, they get rid of their documents. Then they head to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jakarta, declare they are seeking asylum, and request official status as refugees.
- While waiting to receive such status, most of the immigrants take up residence in Cisarua (Bogor).
If caught midstream
- Immigrants claim to be asylum-seekers in order to obtain official refugee status from the UNHCR.
- They are detained by the Immigration Office to collect their data, be photographed, fingerprinted, and make a case file. This process takes 2-3 days per person.
- After this, they stay at an immigration detention center.
- Data on immigrants is turned over to the UNHCR.
- If they meet the conditions set by the UNHCR, an immigrant can obtain asylum-seeker status. If not, they are sent back to their country of origin, by asking for the assistance of their respective embassy.
- The UNHCR can raise their status to refugee if there is a third country which is willing to take them in.
If they reach Jakarta
- Most immigrants contact the smuggler network so they can board an illegal boat to Australia. Some register at the UNHCR office in Jakarta, and are given a letter declaring they are an asylum-seeker.
- Immigrants who register with the UNHCR must wait 2-3 months to be called for an interview.
- The UNHCR checks on their eligibility to be named a refugee. The interview process takes six months to over a year.
- If the immigrant does not meet the conditions, the UNHCR recommends that they be deported.
- Immigrants have the right to file for an appeal one time if their refugee status is not granted. The UNHCR then rechecks their case.
- After obtaining refugee status, an immigrant has two options: be placed in a third country or return home voluntarily.
- Immigrants with refugee status are sent after 2-5 years' time, depending on the willingness of a third country to accept them.
Disbursed in detention centers
The number of illegal immigrants detained in immigration detention centers has increased by the year. The capacity of the detention centers is often exceeded.
Capacity : 600
Illegal immigrants : 340
Capacity : 120
Illegal immigrants : 79
Capacity : 10
Illegal immigrants : 10
Capacity : 120
Illegal immigrants : 140
Capacity : 80
Illegal immigrants : 126
Capacity : 120
Illegal immigrants : 79
Capacity : 80
Illegal immigrants : 46
Capacity : 80
Illegal immigrants : 96
Capacity : 90
Illegal immigrants : 116
Capacity : 20
Illegal immigrants : 0
Capacity : 80
Illegal immigrants : 61
Capacity : 100
Illegal immigrants : 94
*as of March 2012
- Malimping Beach, Banten
- Tanjung Lesung Beach, Banten
- Citarate Beach, Cisolok, Sukabumi
- Loji Beach, Sukabumi
- Ujung Genteng Beach, Sukabumi
- Palampang Beach, Ciwaru Village, Sukabumi
- Pangandaran Beach
- Popoh Beach, Tulungagung
- Tablolong Beach, Kupang
No. 42/12, June 13, 2012
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