May 20, 2012
Aftermath ... Sunda's family keenly felt his 18-month absence.

The answer is not as simple as ‘stopping the boats’ , writes lawyer Edwina Lloyd.

FOR most Australians, a rice cooker is a useful kitchen appliance. But for hundreds of impoverished Indonesian villagers languishing in Australian prisons on people-smuggling charges, rice cookers are things of wonder.

Earlier this year, one of my clients, Sunda*, was found not guilty of people smuggling.

He had spent 18 months in jail, waiting for his trial. Once acquitted, I asked him to nominate which of his meagre prison possessions he wanted to take back to Indonesia. He quickly chose his rice cooker.

Sunda had never seen one. He was amazed by its ability to speedily make perfect, fluffy rice. Of course, once he gets back to Indonesia, Sunda will find his rice cooker is useless. Even if his shanty home had access to electricity, which it doesn’t, the rice cooker has an Australian power plug and wouldn’t work.

Sunda doesn’t understand this nuance. He lives in a different world. His main priority in life is to make enough money to feed his family and pay rent for their dilapidated one-room hut, in a village that resembles what Australians would call a rubbish tip. He doesn’t read newspapers or discuss the politics of asylum seekers and people-smuggling laws.

That is why Sunda had no idea how his life was about to change tragically when he accepted an offer to crew a boat to ”take some tourists to an island”. The boat was carrying asylum seekers.

In this one boat trip, he could earn as much as he would usually earn in a good year. When he asked questions, he was curtly told not to do so if he wanted to be paid.

Sunda knew this trip could help pay off his debts and keep his children in school. The opportunity was life changing. He was relieved the recruiters followed him for the first two days of the journey. He had never sailed a boat so far before.

He did not know that two days into the trip the recruiters would leave him.

In the ocean, Sunda was abandoned and told to follow the GPS to Pulau Christmas (Christmas Island), where he would be picked up and returned to his village.

Sunda did not know Christmas Island was part of Australia – and why would he? There are about 18,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago and Christmas Island is, at 360 kilometres south of Java, far closer to Indonesia than the Australian mainland. Sunda did not know that on arrival at Christmas Island he would be charged with people smuggling.

He did not know that he could be convicted as a people smuggler and face a mandatory five-year sentence under Australian law.

The ostensible purpose of these laws is to stop the boats and break the ”people smugglers’ business model” by acting as a deterrent to others. It’s a big legal stick, but it is bent and it is failing.

To date, the laws have only caught the little fish – poor villagers drafted at the last minute to crew the boats. They are at the cannon-fodder end of the ”business model”.

The organisers are never on the boats at the point when the Royal Australian Navy shows up.

Like the leaky boats the real people smugglers organise, people like Sunda are dispensable.

And he is not alone. At this moment, about 340 Indonesians are waiting in Australian jails and immigration detention for their cases to be heard.

Not only does their prosecution cost the Commonwealth about $250,000 a trial, but each convicted people smuggler costs another $100,000 a year to incarcerate.

The government is wasting many millions of taxpayers’ dollars on prosecuting and imprisoning people, and it’s not even working as a deterrent.

And then there’s the incalculable human cost imposed on the families of the accused.

During Sunda’s 18 months in jail, his wife was left to provide food, shelter and water for herself and their children. To do this she worked in a labour yard, lugging wood during the day, and shelled mussels at night in her village.

When Sunda arrived home he had lost his job and his two children had been taken out of school.

It’s easy for us to sit in judgment of people like Sunda, from our comfortable homes. Our politicians certainly find it easy to throw around labels such as ”vile” and ”evil” in relation to the people who get caught in the people-smuggling net.

But there is a glimmer of hope.

Recently, the Greens introduced a bill into Federal Parliament seeking to repeal mandatory sentences for these offences.

Some MPs understand the ”people smugglers” on the boats are overwhelmingly people like Sunda – from impoverished communities, with rudimentary education. Some understand the laws are discriminatory and inhumane.

The submissions to a Senate committee investigating the bill also showed the present laws don’t work as a deterrent. Unbelievably, the committee recommended the bill should not be passed.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote that ”the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”. Entering our prisons today would reveal inhumane treatment of some of the world’s poorest people.

The likes of Sunda are as much the victims of the real people smugglers as the asylum seekers.

* Not his real name.

Edwina Lloyd is a solicitor with Blair Criminal Lawyers.



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