The other boat people

‘Three nights and three days. There’s no sleep.’

It was a sultry day in July 2015 when Dartho, a 30-year-old Alorese dive guide, started telling me his story in a far-flung corner of south-eastern Indonesia, where everything looked like it had been photo-shopped. Blue skies lightly smudged by clouds, the odd puff from a fishing boat or the feathery emissions of a volcano. Modest houses tumbled down hillsides to deep-water frontages, some with kitchens and toilets thumbing their noses at the view. At low tide villagers trawled the littoral zone for agar, eyeing foreigners with the indifference of those who know that the visitors will soon be gone. No-one there thought about people smugglers – yet the islands are full of them, Dartho, his younger brother and cousins among them.

The events of which Dartho was speaking about had happened five years ago almost to the day.

It was Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who encouraged us to hate those he regarded as ‘the absolute scum of the earth’ who ‘should all rot in hell’. A few years later, Tony Abbott would argue that people smugglers were ‘cruel, heartless and careless’. Journalism of substance did little to disabuse us of a one-size-fits-all image; Sarah Ferguson’s 2012 investigation on Four Corners interrogated the masterminds’ motives but stopped short of shining a light on those who ran the highest risk of arrest and prosecution: the crews. The other boat people.

Gilles Brignardello, who owns the Alor Divers resort, explained that it’s mostly subsistence farming in that part of the world. People encourage their children to get jobs, often in other parts of the archipelago, so that they can send money home. Ruth Balint, a senior lecturer in history at the University of New South Wales, pointed to factors that have made work scarce in the region: depletion of fish stocks is one, incursion by foreign-owned trawlers another. Australia is not without blame. Since proclamation of the Exclusive Economic Zone in 1994, access to Indonesia’s traditional fishing grounds has become more restricted.

Having completed middle school, Dartho found work as a compressor diver in Balikpapan, a seaport on the east coast of Kalimantan in the Indonesian part of Borneo. His job was to harvest trepang – sea cucumber – which, when dried, can fetch hundreds of dollars per kilo on the Southeast Asian market. This form of diving requires the divers, while underwater, to breathe through a plastic hose connected to an air compressor on a boat. He was paid the equivalent of $50 Australian per month for work that carries a risk of permanent disability or death. Somehow he managed to send a portion home to his family in Alor.

After seven years, Dartho and another trepang diver were approached by strangers with an offer of ‘tourist work’. Five hundred dollars for three days’ work was almost as much as they could earn in a year. They knew nothing about their human cargo, nor did they think about what would happen once they’d reached their destination or how they would get back to Indonesia.

‘The reality is that most of the people who are staffing those boats are poor Indonesian fishermen from the region,’ says Kon Karapanagiotidis OAM, founder and chief executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, the largest asylum seeker service in Australia. He’s keen to elevate the conversation about people smuggling to a place that recognises the complexity of the issue: ‘They are desperate people who are trying to make a living trying to help other desperate people escape and find freedom.’

On the morning of 23 June 2010, the 10-metre fishing boat carrying the hopes of 51 Afghani, Iranian and stateless refugees approached its destination. For the past three days they and their two-man crew, including Dartho, had survived on a diet of fried rice, bread, apples, oranges and water. They almost made it. ‘Another boatload of asylum seekers eluded patrols and radar and managed to sail almost all the way into Christmas Island’s harbour before it was stopped,’ Nick Butterfly reported in The West Australian the following day, showing the ease with which the government’s border security system could be penetrated. It was the 72nd boat to be apprehended that year.

The two crew members spent six months in an Australian detention centre. ‘Detention centre is good because everything is nice,’ Dartho said. ‘Good food, comfortable, everything.’

In delivering judgment at their trial, Chief Justice Riley of the Northern Territory Supreme Court recognised the crew were hired hands who were unaware of the punishment awaiting them, but by law he had to impose a five-year sentence with a non-parole period of three years.

Apart from having to fend off inmates looking for a free smoke, Dartho was effusive about his jail experience. ‘I want to say to Australia, thank you, because you get the money, you can buy something in the jail, more food […] I work in the kitchen. Twenty-three dollars, one week. I save, I buy something and I send (money) home.’

Around the middle of 2013, he returned to Indonesia. A few months later Tony Abbott was swept to victory on a promise of stopping the boats. In November the shutters were brought down on disclosure of ‘on-water’ matters, and the scale of boat arrivals from thereon became a matter of conjecture. Karapanagiotidis acknowledges that the government has ‘been very successful in creating an extraordinary climate of secrecy where they can hide what they’re doing.’ Indeed, today it is very hard to find information. The Refugee Action Coalition maintains a patchwork database gleaned from multiple sources: of the 20 boats reported to have arrived after November 2013, most were turned back and refugees made to return to their country of origin or place of embarkation.

While the government’s attitude was a known quantity, I hadn’t anticipated that of the community. Apart from Karapanagiotidis, none of the other services and advocates I approached wished to volunteer a perspective and some didn’t even respond. Through a family connection I’d arranged to interview a refugee who came by boat to Australia many years ago – I wanted to hear about his experience of dealing with the crew who had facilitated his passage. My instructions were to call at a particular time over ‘the next day or two’; his phone was switched off for the entire period and my messages went answered. Was the government’s gag responsible for creating a parallel silence in the community? Karapanagiotidis has a different view. ‘The short answer is that people just don’t want to talk about it and I can understand why. (They ask) what am I getting out of it, what’s the point of revisiting the past? Those that are settled don’t want to be talking about it anymore,’ he says.

‘In different generations, we would have viewed this in very different ways to what we do now, wouldn’t we? As in times when we have viewed them as heroes and people that were rescuing (other) people’s lives.’ Karapanagiotidis’ words bring to mind those who put their own lives on the line to save others: Oskar Schindler and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who helped get Jews out of Germany; Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh who smuggled banned newspaper editor, Donald Woods, out of South Africa; and refugee-turned-smuggler Ali Al Jenabi, who arranged for more than 500 asylum seekers to come to Australia in the early 2000s. But, as Karapanagiotidis points out, for as long as ‘we talk about a deterrence point of view rather than a saving life point of view, things are never going to change’.

Shortly after Dartho’s return to Alor he married Intan, an administrative worker for a local pearl producer. When I spoke to him their daughter, Fatiyeh, was 14 months old. He’d been at the dive resort for four months and seemed content to stay put for the time being. When not showing guests the wonders of the underwater world, his days were filled with maintenance, tidying up around the bungalows, filling tanks, and polishing his English by chatting to people like me. Nobody cared about his past – all the locals knew anyway – only that he could do what he was hired for. And for Dartho, that’s all it was ever about. Being able to earn a living.


Image: Konrad Lembcke / flickr

Rose Saltman

Rose Saltman is a Sydney-based urban planner, writer and editor. She has recently completed a Master of Arts in Nonfiction Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. She blogs on ancestry, travel and anything that captures her imagination.

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