JAKARTA — Fleeing troubled zones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Sri Lanka, a wave of asylum seekers heading to Australia is fueling the people-smuggling business in Indonesia. While bilateral efforts to tackle the illegal trade are underway, critics say that poor Indonesian fishermen are being unfairly punished in the crackdown.
News reports in Australia of desperate refugees risking their lives on rickety boats are now an almost weekly occurrence.
The Australian navy has been vigilantly policing the country's borders in recent years, arresting people smugglers and their clients, then towing the empty boats and burning them at sea.
But critics say the navy has also burned the boats of ordinary fishermen who stray into Australian waters, destroying their livelihood.
Matters worsened for fishermen in 2009 when the Montara oil spill left 18,000 fishermen out of work. Analysts say the pollution is equal in severity to the Gulf of Mexico spill.
Australian migration lawyer Greg Phelps, who is seeking compensation from the Australian government for a fisherman whose boat was burned, says poor fishermen from remote parts of Eastern Indonesia have few options to earn money, luring some into smuggling.
"The fishermen in the region are doing it very tough for a number of reasons," he said. "Some of the reasons are they have had their boats burnt, the other reason is that they are claiming all this loss of fishing capacity from the Montara oil spill… And so for one reason or another you’ve got fishermen who are sitting around with very little to do and they are an easy target for somebody organizing people-smuggling operations."
Phelps is currently representing two former Indonesian fishermen at the Australian High Court after they were caught transporting asylum seekers.
This year the number of people seeking asylum in Australia has surpassed any other.
But Phelps says that punishing the fishermen isn’t helping to stem the tide.
"So we have the situation where the people that aren’t the kingpins that are organizing the smuggling," he said. "They are just the little punter that’s been selected to steer the boat and he’s coming out of it facing mandatory imprisonment for two years and you know the whole business model was to find a boat that was disposable, find a captain that is disposable and just let them both sail off and they might have half a million dollars worth of profit on the vessel for the organizers…”
In Indonesia, recent media reports have also highlighted the involvement of several Indonesian army officers in the people-smuggling trade.
One officer is on trial in East Java this week following allegations he organized boats for asylum seekers.
The issue of Indonesian minors hired as cooks and crew on the boats and then detained in Australian adult prisons on people-smuggling charges has also sparked fierce criticism.
Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Michael Tene says fishermen and minors are often duped into working on the boats and do not fully understand what they are getting involved in.
He says both governments are working closely to protect Indonesian fishermen who become unwittingly embroiled in the trade.
"We are very much concerned about this situation and we have been working closely with the Australian government to address this issue, particularly those involving minors," he said. "We will also enhance our efforts our people who are living on the coastlines, fishermen on the implications of people-smuggling activities."
Australia is under immense political pressure to deliver a solution, but efforts to establish an offshore processing center in East Timor and other regional locations have failed and ignited debate further.
More than 6,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia this year and hundreds more have died at sea since 2011.