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People-Smuggling to Australia Slowed - 2003-04-29

Over the past year, Indonesia and its neighbors have slowed the stream of illegal migrants attempting the perilous journey to Australia. But officials at a regional conference on people-smuggling this week are finding that more work needs to be done.

They come from all over. India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq - almost any underdeveloped nation where economic hardship or political oppression make living conditions close to intolerable.

Thousands of illegal migrants see Indonesia as a gateway to a better life. The country's thousands of islands give it huge extended borders and make it easy to dodge immigration authorities. Once in Indonesia, all a migrant has to do is make contact with a people-smuggler. Stephen Cook, with the International Organization of Migration, or IOM, in Jakarta, says illegal migrants put themselves in danger. "The cost of passage on illegal boats can be over $10,000 per passenger. The boats are not what most would consider sea-worthy or safe," he says. "They're at extreme risk, which was demonstrated by the SIEV-X tragedy."

"SIEV-X" is the Australian acronym for "suspected illegal entry vessel X" - a ship bound for Australia that sank in Indonesian waters in October 2001. About 350 people drowned, leaving just a handful of survivors. Perhaps more than any incident, the SIEV-X tragedy highlighted the problem of people-smuggling in Southeast Asia - and strained the relationship between Indonesia and Australia.

Canberra pushed Jakarta to stop people from sneaking through Indonesia to Australia - a problem Indonesia said was not entirely its fault. The friction between the two nations led to the first regional conference on people-smuggling, human-trafficking and cross-border crime in Bali last year. A second Bali conference began Monday and ends Wednesday.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa says Jakarta hopes the conference builds regional efforts to fight people-smuggling. "Prior to this Bali process we have seen a tendency on the part of some countries, at least, to make the issue of people smuggling as if it is a national issue of certain countries and to put the onus on that country to do the right thing," he says.

Many migrants fail in their efforts to reach Australia. They wind up stuck in Indonesia, waiting months for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to consider their applications for refugee status. If an illegal migrant can prove he or she would face danger by returning home, they can get refugee status, allowing them to resettle in other countries.

The IOM provides food and housing to roughly five hundred illegal migrants in Indonesia. Thousands of others may be in the country, preparing to attempt the voyage to Australia. During the long application process, illegal migrants have little to do but wait, and, in some cases, grow angry.

Asaad Saad is an Iraqi who has been living in a Jakarta hotel under IOM care for two years, after the Australian navy intercepted the ship he was on. "I lose my future, I lose my money, and I lose my time - 2 years," he says. "I am sick, my psychology is sick, I cannot sleep in the night. Who's giving me this time? You pay for me this time?"

Aid agencies want to deter illegal migrants from undertaking the dangerous journey, and from possibly ending up in legal limbo.

Mr. Cook with the IOM says campaigns warning would-be migrants about the perils of the journey are having some success. "To quite a large extent, the smugglers have lost their credibility, and people are no longer prepared to put up the money and to risk their lives to make this perilous journey because they now have an understanding that it doesn't lead to get any good end," says Mr. Cook. "And so the flow has been almost totally choked off."

But not entirely. Earlier this month, two ships from Vietnam were found be in Indonesian waters. One landed on a northern Indonesian island because of engine problems. The 31 migrants aboard are now in Indonesian custody.

The location of the second ship, believed to be carrying 42 Vietnamese, is not known. Last week it docked at the city of Banjarmasin on the island of Kalimantan. Officials there gave the ship fuel and water - and sent it out to sea again.