Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Precarious livelihoods in eastern Indonesia: of fishermen and people smugglers

Indonesian fishermen started smuggling people to Australia after their other sources of income dried up, even though it often meant jail time. Indeed, that was part of their livelihood strategy.

Antje Missbach
6 April 2016
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A fisherman in Indonesia. Gilles Guerraz/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

On a balmy late afternoon in September 2014, I visit a hamlet on Rote Island in the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur, the southernmost edge in eastern Indonesia. Rote Island is located at the very geographic margin of the Indonesian archipelago: it is not just peripheral in regard to its geographic position, but also economically. I was pointed in Amir’s (not his real name) direction because he had twice served time in Australian jails for transporting asylum seekers to the Australian Ashmore Reef (80 miles from Rote). For his first trip in 2001, Amir was promised 20 million Indonesian rupiah, the equivalent of 3,800 Australian dollars that year (based on the average annual exchange rate). For his second trip in 2009 he was offered 35 million rupiah (AUD4,300 in 2009). The promised sum represented a fortune to him, compared to what he can usually earn as hired crew on a long fishing excursion over several weeks. Although he was unfamiliar with Australian laws on people smuggling, it clearly crossed his mind that there might be something wrong with the few days’ work required to take the asylum seekers to Ashmore Reef.

Amir’s jail time became a ‘sacrifice’ for the well-being of the family.

Amir talks quite freely about his motivations for crewing boats carrying asylum seekers, the time spent in jail, and life in the village after his return. What is most striking is the way he speaks about his prison term, which he depicts as ‘work’, a job just as precarious and risky as any other option available to him. In Amir’s view, the actual job was not just taking asylum seekers but also serving jail time, making it a much more time-consuming work commitment. In jail he was able to earn small amounts of money, depending on the kind of work he performed. For example, as a kitchen hand he earned less than he earned as a gardener or laundry helper.

Although these amounts were small in Australian terms, when sent to his family at home they were an adequate income to cover their needs. Amir’s jail time became a ‘sacrifice’ for the well-being of the family. The fact that he had spent substantial time in jail did not dampen his enthusiasm for this kind of work in the future. Indeed, Amir explained in great detail the pros and cons of taking on the job of ferrying asylum seekers to Australia by comparing it with the other options available to him.

Out for profit or survival?

At first glance, stories of this kind might be understood as the stories of individuals flouting the law for their own material gain. However, when one considers that hundreds of Indonesian fishermen have ended up in Australian (and subsequently Indonesian) jails for people-smuggling offences, stories like Amir’s present themselves in a very different light. The high levels of structural poverty and precariousness in Rote Island and other parts of eastern Indonesia, I argue, make it difficult to see their decisions as the individual trade-off of high risks for high rewards.

Rotenese fishermen are pushed into smuggling by indebtedness and a lack of options for making money legally

Instead, I want to direct attention to the generally poor chances for making a decent living in Rote, and suggest that many Rotenese fishermen are pushed into smuggling by their indebtedness, lack of options for making money legally, and increasing precariousness. It is true that living conditions on Rote have always been hard and insecure because of the island’s geographic isolation and arid climate. The situation is, however, getting worse, not least because of overfishing and pollution.

My research shows two realms in which precarisation has hit particularly hard in recent years, and Australia’s role in exacerbating that precarity features very strongly in both. The first realm includes Australian maritime conservation efforts that prevent Rotenese fishermen from working in certain areas. The second regards an offshore oil spill caused by an Australian company and its subsequent reluctance to pay compensation to Rotenese fishermen, who, due to massive environmental pollution, suffered a fall in fish and seaweed stocks. The reduced options for income generation by legal means forced the Rotenese to engage in illegal(ised) fishing and smuggling activities to compensate the loss of income. In this regard, the fishermen in Rote are not a unique example. There are in fact striking parallels with impoverished fishermen in Morocco and Tunisia, who were drawn into people smuggling by selling their boats after their jobs in the fishing industry disappeared.

Fishermen tend to be poor, but they possess specialised skills. Their willingness to take on high levels of risk has made them more competitive and helped them establish (sometimes unsustainable) new livelihoods. Their intimate knowledge of the local maritime environment and their navigational skills, even without modern equipment, are particularly sought after by the organisers of smuggling voyages. Many fishermen have sold their services to those who coordinate the transport of asylum seekers to Australia. In doing so they have exposed themselves to the risk of apprehension and lengthy imprisonment, but have gained little of the profits of people-smuggling operations.

Working despite the state

The enormous amount of public money spent to prosecute the ‘crimes’ of people smuggling and illegal fishing in Australia serves to highlight the situation. A trial lasting several days costs between AUD450,000 and 750,000. Under Australian law, people-smuggling offences that are deemed aggravated carry mandatory minimum penalties of five years imprisonment with a three-year non-parole period and heavy fines.

The flaws and shortcomings of people-smuggling trials and mandatory prison terms for people smuggling in Australia have been discussed widely. Although not every transporter is necessarily arrested, prosecuted, and imprisoned as a people smuggler, many Indonesians have spent several years in Australian prisons for such offences, away from their families and isolated from community support. One cannot but wonder how many small-scale income-generating initiatives could have been created if this money had been spent on investment rather than wasted on proceedings against these people.

As the example of Amir the repeat offender has shown, serving time in an Australian prison does not necessarily deter fishermen from Rote becoming involved in people smuggling. In contrast, fishermen from Rote have deliberately accepted the risk of a period of imprisonment. Their decision to become involved in people smuggling was not simply a consequence of not knowing or ignoring the law, but rather an acceptance or reliance upon Australian law. Money that they could earn in prison in Australia and remit to their families in Indonesia was an incentive for them, in spite of all the other disadvantages of several years of imprisonment, such as separation from family, loneliness and standing trial in a culturally unfamiliar setting.

In 2011, as part of a wider strategy to combat people smuggling, the Australian government decided to prevent convicted people smugglers from remitting their gratuity earnings back home and to use the prisoners’ accumulated savings to pay the Australian government for the cost of their imprisonment. Nowadays, if Indonesian fishermen attempt to take asylum seekers to Australia, they are intercepted and returned to Indonesia (often against their will), where they then face legal proceedings under Indonesian law. For Amir the prospect of serving time in jail in Indonesia is the ultimate disincentive, “not for 100 million rupiah would I volunteer for this kind of misery (sengsara)”. Yet, it weighs hard on him when he thinks about how to provide for his family in the future.

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