Review of “The People Smuggler” by Robyn De Crespigny

Review by Chris Breen

The People Smuggler is the larger than life tale of an Iraqi refugee who becomes a people smuggler in order to save his family. It is a moving story that pierces many of the myths, half truths and outright lies that underlie government policy on refugees in Australia today.

It tells the true story of Ali Al Jenabi, who flees Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after being tortured in Abu Ghraib prison. While tenacious and resourceful, he is tossed by waves of misfortune from one place to the next, and becomes a ‘people smuggler’ after finding himself stranded in Indonesia. He sees it as a way to gather the money required to bring his family to Australia, and simultaneously help Iraqi refugees to freedom. He became the first person ever to be tried under Australia’s new anti-people smuggling laws – or a ‘political football’ as his lawyer describes him.

Ali is immediately likeable, rebellious, a fighter, honest, loyal, determined and generous. Author Robyn De Crespigny spent “more than three years working intensely with Ali” to bring his epic journey to life. She says that “I made the decision to write this book in the first person to enable the reader to experience Ali’s life at first hand by being placed in his shoes.”

After the US defeated Saddam Hussein in the 1990-91 Gulf War, they encouraged Shiite Muslims in the country’s south to rise up against the regime, and then abandoned them. Ali, a Shiite, was caught up in the brutal aftermath of the failed rebellion. Captured and taken to Abu Ghraib, he was tortured by Saddam’s henchmen, along with his brother, who had two fingers chopped off while Ali watched. As a result Ali begins working for the resistance against Saddam, eventually forcing him to become a refugee.

Never knowing whom he can trust or where to turn, Ali uses the services of people smugglers, some bad, some good. When presented with an opportunity to work for a people smuggler, he sees a way out of his situation. At this time ‘people smuggling’ in Indonesia was not illegal, and considered just another business. Ali tells himself, “So I will do it myself the way it should be done. I will not only help my family, I will save other Iraqis and everyone I help escape will feel like a personal victory over Saddam.” He comes to feel that his efforts at people smuggling do more good for the Iraqis who had fought Saddam, than he had done as part of the fragmented and faltering resistance.

Even for those familiar with the ugly refugee politics of the last two decades, from Howard to Gillard, the book shows them from a fresh, human angle. It tells the story of the attacks on refugees from the point of view of those trying to come here by boat, and from the point of view of those behind Australian razor wire.

It is a tribute to the quality of the writing that the book raises political questions about refugees without breaking the stride of the very personal story it tells.

For example, writing as Ali, De Crespingy recounts “Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen coin the phrase: the people smugglers’ business model. They declare they are going to smash this mysterious identity by any means. I laugh out loud when I hear it. Do they think there are men in suits sitting around boardroom tables somewhere devising strategies? Has no one told them people smuggling is an amorphous rag-tag network run by word of mouth and mobile phones? There are no records or bank accounts. No spreadsheets or business plans. They pop up wherever people are trying to escape and disappear when they are no longer needed. If you want to stop people smugglers you have to do something about what causes people to flee their own countries in the first place.”

Ali is arrested in Thailand as part of an Australian Federal Police (AFP) trap. He spends a year in a Thai jail, before being extradited to Australia, to face trial for ‘people smuggling’ – for events that all took place in Indonesia, and which were not criminal offences there. The actions of the AFP expose Australia’s role as a regional bully.

The AFP Iraqi informer who helped set the trap, appropriately identified only as ‘Weasel,’ was also involved with ‘people smuggling.’ But he is paid perhaps $200 – $300 US dollars a week by the AFP, and eventually given permanent residency, in return for his cooperation. He was also involved in the organisation of the journey of the SIEV X boat, which sank killing 353 people. Which raises further questions about what Australian authorities knew about that disaster as it unfolded.

The court case does not go as the AFP and their political masters would want, as details of Ali’s motivation and kindness come out. No-one died on Ali’s boats, they were not overcrowded, and he let people go for free when they couldn’t pay. As one of the refugees Ali helped later said “I think he is a very very gentleman. He is the best smuggler. He had a good heart. He was not a hard greedy person.”

Although the judge is forced to jail Ali, he remarks “Oskar Schindler saved many lives by employing Jews as slave labourers and he made a great deal of money out of their labour, although he did later repay many of those that he was able to save. But the point is a valid one; there can be mixed motives and I accept the prisoner was not solely motivated by money, but was largely motivated by the need to get his family to Australia come what may.”

Because Ali has been a political football the Immigration Department takes over a year to decide on his asylum claim, against all their own regulations. Ali is found to be a refugee, but on then Immigration Minister Chris Evans’ decision is put on a ‘removal pending bridging visa’ – meaning he can be deported from Australia at any time if the situation in Iraq improves. This is similar to the notorious Temporary Protection Visas of the Howard years. Ali remains in this situation today.

After getting out of Villawood detention centre Ali is shunted between Centrelink and the Immigration Department. He has parole officers come and do random breath tests at his house (Ali a Muslim, is a non drinker).

Ali says “The rosy glow of liberty begins to dim and I realise I am back on the treadmill of endurance. The reality is the minister is going to leave me on this removal visa and any day I could get a knock on the door and be flown out. Until I get a permanent visa I am told I definitely can’t apply to bring Intisar here as my wife, and if I leave the country to visit Indonesia I will not be allowed back in. I call Nagis [his daughter in Indonesia] and try to expain to her, but what does a six year old understand? She waits each day for me to appear.”

Ali’s story should be compulsory reading for current Labor Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, who to this day refuses to give Ali a permanent visa. The book deserves to be widely read. Not only is it an incredibly moving story, it will help anyone that reads it to take on the lies about ‘people smugglers’ and refugees that the Australian government relies on to justify its heartless policies.

Media Release: Deported Tamil asylum seeker interrogated for 16 hours

Deported Tamil asylum seeker interrogated for 16 hours then released but still in danger

Distraught family members of deported Tamil asylum seeker Mr Dayan Anthony have finally been reunited with him. Anthony was deported on July 25.

Anthony was interrogated for 16 hours after being handed over to the Sri Lankan police intelligence unit (CID) at Colombo airport. During this time, the Sri Lankan police refused to give the family any information.

In a scene reminiscent of hostage dramas when hostages are paraded before camera and forced to say the words of their captors, Anthony was forced to address a media conference where he recanted his claims of previous torture.

Refugee Action Collective spokesperson Sue Bolton said today that she believes the statements made by Anthony in the press conference were statements made under duress.

Bolton said that she believed that “It is not surprising that Anthony agreed to the press conference after 16 hours of interrogation without any legal representation.

“It is highly likely that it was a condition of Anthony’s release that he recant about his previous experience of mistreatment and torture. It is also highly likely that he was threatened during the interrogation in order to get his agreement to recant.

“The Human Rights Watch has documented a dozen cases of asylum seekers being tortured after being deported from Britain.

“Reports of Dayan’s comments such as, ‘Sri Lanka has become the safest place on the earth after the LTTE was wiped out from the country’ sound totally unbelievable and sound like a script prepared by the CID for its own propaganda purposes.

“We are calling on the Australian government officials to publicly report what they witnessed at Dayan’s questioning and to explain why they were not present for the entire interrogation.

“Anthony’s family is now terrified for his safety. If Australia and Sri Lanka weren’t allies, the Australian government would have loudly condemned the charade of a press conference.

“The family has good reason to be afraid. In a recent case, a Tamil refugee was deported from Britain, interrogated at the airport then released, only to be re-arrested later and tortured.

Bolton added that there were many problems with what happened to Anthony. Anthony’s sister in Melbourne wasn’t allowed to visit him before he was deported.

When his sister realized that he was being deported, the immigration department refused to reveal what flight he would be on so that he could be met by a lawyer as well as his family.

The Australian government ignored a request from the United Nations to stop the deportation while Dayan Anthony’s case is investigated by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Then, when the plane landed in Colombo, the Australian officials handed Dayan Anthony over to the Sri Lankan police rather than to his family.

Bolton said that the Refugee Action Collective is calling on the Australian government to:

  • intervene and seek a guarantee from the Sri Lankan government that Anthony Dayan and his family not be harmed in any way.
  • Seek the return of Anthony Dayan to Australia where his application for asylum can be reviewed.
  • Halt all forced deportations to Sri Lanka

Bolton also said that there are problems with the asylum assessment process in Australia, if someone such as Dayan Anthony, whose life was clearly in danger in Sri Lanka, could have his asylum claim rejected.

“The treatment of Anthony since arriving in Sri Lanka demonstrates that the immigration department in Australia made a huge mistake in rejecting his claim for asylum. Tragically, rejections of asylum claims can result in a returned asylum seeker being tortured or killed.,” she said.

“The Refugee Action Collective and other refugee groups are stepping up the campaign to stop further deportation and are seeking union and community support.

Media Release: Deported Tamil asylum seeker disappears

Distraught family members of the Tamil asylum seeker known as “Mr X” who was deported to Sri Lanka on July 25 have not been able to locate their relative.

More than 14 hours after landing at Colombo airport, the Tamil man had not come out of the airport.

There are reports in the Sri Lankan media that the man has been detained by the Sri Lankan intelligence unit.

While Mr X’s family was waiting for him to emerge from the airport, the Australian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka arrived at the airport and sought the man’s release. Even the High Commissioner was unsuccessful.

Mr X’s claim for asylum had been rejected despite credible information that the man would face serious danger if he was returned to Sri Lanka.

Refugee Action Collective spokesperson Sue Bolton called on the Australian government to intervene and seek Mr X’s immediate release and return to Australia.

Bolton called into question Australia’s asylum assessment process which could reject the asylum claim of a person who was clearly faced danger in Sri Lanka.

“Refugee activists tried to prevent the deportation of Mr X.

“Mr X’s family, Tamil community members and refugee advocates warned that Mr X’s life was in danger if he was deported to Sri Lanka. How could someone like this have their claim for asylum rejected?”

There are many documented cases of Tamil asylum seekers being deported to Sri Lanka and then being arrested and interrogated.

“Immigration Minister Chris Bowen must intervene to have Mr X released and returned to Australia. The government was clearly in error when it rejected Mr X’s asylum bid.”