Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: Antje Missbach

Antje Missbach
26 March 2016


Provided by author

Question 1 – the rhetoric surrounding smugglers is packed with graphic images of violence and exploitation. What does your research indicate? Are smugglers really parasites profiting on human desperation, or, at the end of the day, do they provide a service to those on the move?  How do we move the conversation forward?

My recent research looks at the Indonesian fishermen transporting mostly Afghan and Pakistani asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia. It shows that the men convicted for people smuggling under Indonesian law do not resemble the stereotypical human smuggler found in the public media or in populist political debates. Instead of being either greedy, predatory, brutal monsters or altruistic, inerrant saints, most sentenced offenders have very little formal education and often live on both the geographic and socio-political margins of society. Retelling their ‘career paths’ reveals that most became involved in people smuggling due to ongoing precariousness in their lives. Sick children and spouses, insurmountable indebtedness, exploitation by peers, and few prospects to escape the daily misery of their lives made them take up very risky job offers. Against their better judgement they accepted job offers, sometimes arranged through those whom they owed money.

Question 3 – another myth connected to smuggling is the one pertaining to its organisation. We hear of smugglers organised into cartels, networks or transnational groups, but also of small-scale operations. What does your work suggest, and what does that say about irregular migration?

My study of Indonesian people-smuggling trials shows that the majority of convicted offenders are men aged between 25 and 40 years from the island of Java or Nusa Tenggara Barat, one of the poorest Indonesian provinces. Before their conviction, most of them were fishermen or had no regular employment. Only eight of the 99 convicted smugglers in my sample were non-Indonesians. These men usually acted as organisers for the journey or as recruiters for clients. My study thus confirms what is widely suspected: most of those prosecuted and sentenced for people smuggling in Indonesia are those who played only minor roles in the smuggling operations, such as drivers and boat crew. They earn relatively little money for their involvement (usually around $150-300), but they face the highest risks and are given the harshest penalties. It makes little difference to the organisers if the ferrymen are arrested and sentenced, as they can easily find others to fill those roles. The smuggling networks in Indonesia have over the years developed resilience in managing the risk of detection and disbanding, even though they fall dormant during periods of low demand for transport. Given the large pool of impoverished Indonesians the consistency of a people-smuggling network is not challenged at all.

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