Human trafficking slows in Asia

Australia's John Howard arrived in Jakarta yesterday to smooth rising tensions over illegal trafficking.

Irwan Bule shields his eyes from the bright morning sun and gazes past the swaying wooden boats to the turquoise Java Sea. With last night's catch of tuna and snapper reeled in and sold, most fishermen have gone, but not Mr. Bule.

His catch is thousands of Muslim migrants, who have paid up to $8,000 to smugglers in Iraq or Afghanistan to get them safely to Australia through Indonesia.

But business is idling, much like Bule's fleet of moored boats. Bule, a ship agent and broker, hasn't arranged illegal passage to Australia since October, when Australia began stepping up its naval patrols.

The issue has long divided the countries, with Australia chiding its northern neighbor for failing to outlaw the trade. Indonesia, still smarting from the Australian-led peacekeeping force that helped East Timor gain independence, accuses Australia of meddling in domestic affairs.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard arrived in Jakarta yesterday hoping to smooth tensions between the two countries. Several legislators have refused to meet with Mr. Howard in protest. Howard's successful reelection in November is attributed to his tough stance on illegal migrants.

In the past four months, Australia has intensified its campaign to stem the tide of illegal immigrants. In October, one vessel sank off the Java coastline, costing 373 lives - almost half of them children - drawing world attention to the dangers of the migrant trade and to Indonesia's role as a staging ground.

The Australian Navy routinely turns back boatloads of migrants in its waters, despite the dubious seaworthiness of many vessels that ply the trade. In 2001, it received 4,175 so-called boat people, but since October, none have made it past the blockade.

Last year, Australia changed the status of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef - two outlying territories closer to Indonesia than Australia - to prevent illegal entrants from claiming asylum there. Instead, 1,335 recent arrivals have been shipped to Australian-funded detention centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is processing their claims.

In a bid to broaden this battle, Australia and Indonesia are co-hosting an international conference on people-smuggling in Bali on Feb. 27. Organizers say they want to boost cooperation between countries of origin, transit countries, and the intended destinations of illegal migrants.

Geoff Raby, a senior official in Australia's foreign affairs department, says Australia's annual intake of 12,000 refugees - mostly through UNHCR - is proof of its generosity, and that smugglers are exploiting it by sending migrants through illegal channels. Mr. Raby says the diversion of asylum seekers to Pacific Islands for processing should discourage migrants from coming illegally. "It's a way of building a disincentive into the system," he says.

But the system still has plenty of incentives for smugglers, who charge hundreds of migrants several thousand dollars a head. After paying $100 per cargo to harbor middlemen like Bule, a total of $1,500 to the boat captain and crew, and up to $2,500 in payoffs to police, the smugglers are left with a tidy profit.

Mughdad Edy, a school teacher from Iraq, wants more than a refund from the smuggler, an Iraqi called Abu Holra, who sold him an illegal passage to Ashmore Reef last year.

He wants revenge for the loss of his daughter, who drowned when their boat capsized off the coast of Flores. His wife and two other daughters, including the four-year-old twin of the deceased, survived. They are staying at a hostel outside Jakarta and applying to the UNHCR for asylum. "If I see him [Abu Holra], I will kill him," he vows. "But I don't know where he went."

After the fatal October shipwreck, police arrested Abu Qassay, an Egyptian using a Turkish passport who is accused of organizing the boat. He will go on trial soon on visa-violation charges.

Including Mr. Qassay, Australian authorities have identified eight smuggling syndicates in Indonesia, all headed by foreign nationals, according to an Australian diplomat.

An extradition treaty between the two countries omits people-smuggling, leaving Australia reliant on Indonesia's police - who are suspected of having a hand in the trade - to apprehend traffickers.

For the desperate migrants left marooned in Indonesia, options are limited. Many apply to the UNHCR, which has 1,438 asylum seekers on its books, of which 632 have so far been given refugee status along with their dependents.

Australia's tighter controls have sent the commission's workload soaring; in 1999, it registered nine asylum seekers. "As the chance of getting to Australia gets more and more slim, they turn to us," says Raymond Hall, UNHCR regional representative.

Others may opt to return home. The International Organization for Migration, which provides shelter and assistance to some 1,200 migrants, has helped some 214 to return. Diplomats and migration officials say stability in Afghanistan may convince some Afghans to go back, although many migrants are skeptical of the new regime in Kabul.

"We can't trust this government," says Iqbal, who was jailed by the Taliban for more than two months after his brother joined the Northern Alliance. "We've had so many governments in Afghanistan that didn't bring peace."

Meanwhile, some actors in the illegal trade are rethinking their lines of work.

Herman, a boat captain in Pelabuhan Ratu, is too scared to work for the smugglers again. He says the risk of a long jail sentence in Australia - five years for first-time offenders - has convinced him to stick to fishing.

"There are some [captains] who will try, despite the dangers," he says. "But I don't want my family to go hungry. It's too risky."

But Bule, the ship agent, anticipates the tide will turn in his favor, sooner or later.

"I'm just waiting for the call," he says, pointing out the fleet of anchored, unused boats. "Then everything can be fixed."

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