In defence of people-smuggling


Vietnamese boat peopleDuring the brief storm caused by Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Scott Morrison's remarks on the recent asylum seeker funerals, another senior Liberal praised his compassion, claiming he was deeply affected by the sufferings people smugglers had caused asylum seekers.

I am delighted to accept this testimony to Morrison's compassion for asylum seekers. But, even if this compassion is sincere, the implicit argument that asylum seekers merit sympathy because they are the passive victims of people smugglers is pernicious.

It is usually put in this form. Credulous asylum seekers are lured by avaricious people smugglers to travel on unsafe boats to Australian territory. Fellow-feeling with asylum seekers demands that this risk to life and health must therefore be stopped by preventing and penalising travel by boat.

This argument assumes that death at sea in an unsafe boat is the greatest peril that asylum seekers have to fear, that they are the passive and deluded victims of people smugglers, and that their lives will benefit if people smugglers are neutered. None of these assumptions is true.

Asylum seekers walk with death as their shadow. Persecution in your homeland and surrounding nations means living among people who will rejoice in your death, others who will not lift a finger to keep you or your family alive, and a society in which your humanity is valued less than animals.

If you pray with a group of asylum seekers, they will ask you to remember their dead relatives and friends and those who risk death along the way.

The story of asylum seekers has always been of fortunate and determined survivors and the unknown dead. Many Jews died trying to leave Germany. Some estimate that more than a third of the hundreds of thousands who fled from Vietnam after 1975 were killed by pirates or sank while at sea. Many Cambodians died in minefields or where shot by paramilitary when escaping into Thailand.

Villagers from El Salvador, harried by their armed forces and hunted out of their homes, died at the guns trained on them from both sides of the Rio Lempa. And yet they all continued to flee.

Asylum seekers have also always needed help to make their journey to safety. Even Joseph and Mary are often depicted with a young guide as they flee into Egypt. Many Jewish asylum seekers were given shelter and helped to cross borders by ordinary families and by religious communities.

Our people smugglers may be seen as distinctive in that they charge high prices for their troubles. But asylum seekers have always relied on people who exploited them. Chances are that even the legendary donkey on which Mary and Jesus rode to Egypt was hired at an extortionate rate.

Certainly, asylum seekers from behind the Iron Curtain, Cambodians fleeing into Thailand, Afghans escaping the Taliban and Vietnamese fleeing from Vietnam all needed help to escape. They often feared their helpers, but had no other options. They were prepared to pay over the odds for the opportunity to save their lives and retain their dignity as human beings.

In Australia most on-shore asylum seekers have been found to be refugees. This is testimony that they had the courage and inner resource to escape persecution in their own countries, to risk their lives and those of their families by setting out on a long journey, including on an overcrowded boat, in order to find protection. For them people smugglers are minor attendants in death's court.

If we are to sympathise with asylum seekers we owe it to them to listen to their story, to be moved to anger at the conditions that forced them from their own country, to admire their courage and freedom of spirit, to grieve for those who died at each point of the journey, and to ensure that those who need protection are offered it without need of people smugglers.

Measures like pushing boats away, keeping people in detention and dumping them on Nauru don't flow naturally from sympathy for asylum seekers. They are the natural expressions of fear and antipathy. Of course, like the legendary headmaster who caned boys savagely while feeling more hurt than they were, it is possible in good conscience to feel sympathy and to support barbarous deeds. But in the case of asylum seekers, this attitude is condescending. It pretends that we can know their predicament better than they know it themselves, and that we can address the ills they suffer by further unmerited assault on their dignity.

In a fallen world and so, mercifully, not in Australia, it is also conceivable that people might feign sympathy for the suffering of asylum seekers at the hands of people smugglers in order to win support for their proposal to prevent asylum seekers from coming to Australia by boat, come what may. In that case the expression of sympathy would be canting humbug, a grimace to mask the brutality of one's attitudes and actions.

Either way, neither asylum seekers nor the rest of us should have to put up with this nonsense.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, people smugglers, Scott Morrison, asylum seeker funerals



submit a comment

Existing comments

Instead of fear of the other, if fearful Australians and poll driven politicians had a modicum of the courage that asylum seekers have we would be a compassionate nation that welcomes the vulnerable. Particularly the vulnerable of our own making- from Afghanistan & Iraq.Thank you Andrew.
Dr Vacy Vlazna | 25 February 2011

The whole, "Can profiteers do good for refugees?" question should be banal after the mainstream film 'Schindlers list'. This historical hypothesis was thoroughly examined by Thomas Keneally and the answer popularised by Steven Spielberg. You would have thought that that would have been the final word on the matter.
martin spencer | 25 February 2011

A broad brush is a fine tool if one wants to paint a wide wall but such a brush with its weight of paint would drown valuable detail needing to be highlighted.

Andrew has wielded a broad brush with his unsubstantiated claim that "asylum seekers have always relied on people who exploited them" and, thus, he has smothered the truth.It is simply wrong to make such a dreadful claim.

There is absolutely no basis whatsoever for his bizarre claim which suggests every asylum seeker...Jews in flight from Hitler, Cambodians fleeing Pol Pot etc etc...had to pay "over the odds". That denies the reality and unselfish efforts of unknown thousands through the ages who were never motivated by money to go to their rescue, people willing to risk their own lives in the course of right or justice or mercy.

It's also pure supposition to assert that
"Chances are that even the legendary donkey on which Mary and Jesus rode to Egypt was hired at an extortionate rate". Yes, it's a captivating line, but that's all.The reality was likely very different indeed.If a four legged treasure could command an 'extortionate" price, who would risk riding it without a significant escort?Joseph and Mary's "young guide" was a guide, not an armed guard.

There are alternatives to smugglers and dangerous boats.A tidal wave of humanity is presently seeking to swirl out of Libya,Tunisia,Yemen, and other lands run by despots. But where are the voices of the world's national and religious leaders? When will the Pope speak up?
Brian Haill - Melbourne | 25 February 2011

There is a huge difference between refugees and those who deliberately enter the country illegally. People smugglers are criminal murderous scum. Emotionalism does not overcome logic.
Trent | 25 February 2011

Andrew, thank you for bringing your usual depth, complexity and compassion to a 'taboo' subject.
Anne | 25 February 2011

Thanks Andrew. I like the idea about overcharging for donkeys. But the headline suggests this would be a defense of the people smugglers themselves.

Comments by Trent in particular suggest that is precisely the debate we now need to entertain: are people smugglers all, invariably, 'murderous scum'?
Tom Clark | 25 February 2011

I really enjoyed this article. Portraying people smugglers as 'evil' and asylum seekers as passive 'victims' is simplistic and lazy does not help at all in seeking to understand the complex factors that cause people to flee their homes and countries. It also denies agency to asylum seekers which, in turn, allows policy makers to treat them as a faceless and homogenous mass.
Lia Kent | 25 February 2011

The situation in Europe, UK and Ireland after WW2 was parlous. To use the broad brush of Andrew - and risking the criticism of some commentators - the Australian government was able to take advantage of a situation where people were desperate (many for sake of their children) to get away as far as they could from lands that had seen centuries of conflict.

The push factor to leave was huge. The pull factor was the Australian government offering cheap transport to a peaceful and prosperous land. Push and pull factors operate in the case of refugees trying to get to Australia. Desperate situations call for desperate measures. Until nation-states (of all complexions)and the UN face the facts (persecution/discrimination/poverty/civil war etc) that turn citizens into refugees and do something about them, refugees, like the poor, will be with us for a long long time.

I don't defend people smugglers but I can understand how desperate people turn to them as, in their eyes, the only viable option.

People smuggling out of source countries, such as Sri Lanka and Afghanistan,is only possible through bribery and corruption of officials.

Politicians could try working for peace and against corruption instead of "stopping the boats".
Uncle Pat | 25 February 2011

Have you figured out how much they have to pay to come here? and how do they pay that? thse puzzle me.
If they go and live in Kabul with that amount of monies, they would be able to make a good living and that will contribute their nation in a very resonable way.

Corruption in Afghanistan is a well-known issue but the citizens themselves have the responsibility to correct their country.
Afghanistan is not a bad country anymore but the people have to start changing their lifestyle to suit a better situatiion and make their country good.

Australia has spent both moneys and life to make Afghanistan safe and become a better country - they must not forget that and they must keep their country well.
AZURE | 25 February 2011

I found myself nodding in agreement as I was reading your article, Andrew. While it is difficult for me to put myself in an asylum seeker's shoes, your perspective about the motivation of asylum seekers is in accord with what I can imagine and, in fact, learned through some contact I had with asylum seekers at Villawood some years ago.

Trent, I think you should re-read your very emotional statement and see the contradictions therein.
Erik H | 25 February 2011

'we owe it to them to listen to their stories'. yes Andrew and then to try to put on their shoes. Surely then we will speak from the heart, our own and that of the Gospel. Thank you Andrew for your compassion, understanding of situations and great way with words.
Anna C | 25 February 2011

It has to be agreed that any persons wishing to come to our country whether as asylum seekers or just as seekers for a better life for themselves or their families have an inalienable right to do so. That principle is enshrined in internationalo L-A-W.

But as Andrew points out, help from others to make their land fall is usually required. For those not at risk of their lives but waiting agonisingly in an immigration centre in Indonesia, and finally paying for help from criminal people smugglers,is a desperate act.
"Lie down with dogs - get up with fleas".

Andrew can not compare our boat-borne asylum seekers with Jews fleeing the Nazis in Germany or Salvadorians dodging bullets during their escape. This part of his commentary is dangerous and naive.
Claude Rigney | 25 February 2011

Trent. It is not "Illegal" to seek asylum in Australia. You illustrate the widespread ignorance which pervades this subject. Most of those who arrive by boat are found to be genuine refugees. They have broken no laws by seeking protection in Australia.
Mike Hopkins | 25 February 2011

I feel this comment is most just and compassionate - and long overdue. It takes someone of the calibre of Andrew Hamilton whose words I always read to put the focus where it should be. I thank God for his influence on this troubled country.
Carmel Moore | 25 February 2011

By virtue of its geography, Australia receives only a fraction of the number of refugees and asylum seekers who arrive in most developed countries in Europe.
So there is some puzzlement here in France that Australia is so unwelcoming given its vast spaces, its extraordinarily robust economy and the reputation Australians used to have for generosity.
Very instructive article. Thanks, Andrew.
Alan Austin | 25 February 2011

Dear Trent, whether now or in the past, there is often no difference between refugees and those who deliberately enter a country illegally. We are not talking here much of the time about people with a choice. How a country responds to refugees is a test of that country’s basic understanding of how its people respect other humans.

Then again, there is a huge difference between refugees and those who deliberately stay in the country when they should have returned to Britain five years ago. It’s called overstaying your visa. People smugglers are not criminal murderous scum, in fact murder is precisely what they are not committing as that would destroy their prime motive, which is to make money out of these vulnerable human beings. Murder is illegal in Indonesia, unless something has changed. Emotionalism, as you have just demonstrated in your argument, overcomes logic. A more interesting exercise is to follow a logical argument and figure out where the emotion is operating.

Can emotion ever be completely separated from the logic of an argument? For general reflection, it was the great and holy man Saint Benedict of blessed memory who required hospitality. Every Benedictine House has a guestroom. Sincerely, Desi.
Desiderius Erasmus | 25 February 2011

At last someone has exposed the hypocrisy of those who profess to be concerned about the plight of asylum seekers but instead of acknowledging their legitimate fears and entitlement to sanctuary shift the emphasis onto those 'evil people smugglers'. This article should be published in the mainstream press -say the Opinion Page in the Age. I am sure many people will welcome someone saying it as it is and reflecting what a lot of people think even if the polls show otherwise.

It's time to shape opinion and encourage people to think independently, not just to bathe in the convenient bias promoted by our political leaders.
Jacinta Heffey | 25 February 2011

Well said Andrew. Most of our loathing of people smugglers is shooting the messenger
Jim Jones | 25 February 2011

Australia is a place on this planet where human beings currently live well.We have a tradition of excellence in our fighting forces but we have grown soft and I doubt if confronted by a conflict in the future we could acquit ourselves sufficiently to repel an invader. We might not need young fit men and women now, but the sons and daughters of the asylum seekers we accept into our country now will be the defenders we will need in the future............... desperately!mark my words!
Jack Kennedy | 25 February 2011

Thank you for your comments. To carry the conversation further, I shall take up points made on two of the postings.

Azure suggests that the Afghan asylum seekers should have gone to Kabul where they could have worked to build up their country. The Afghan asylum seekers whom I know would have said, 'Would that we could!'

They flee because they are persecuted in their own country, and because even in Kabul the government either cannot or will not give them the protection against persecution that they need to live securely and to contribute to society. Would we have required the Jews fleeing Hitler to return to Germany in order to build a better society?

Claude Rigney says it is naive to compare the plight of the Jews and others with asylum seekers who are waiting in an immigration centre in Indonesia. From their perspective, I do not see the naivety. Like the Jews, they have fled in fear of a persecution that threatens their life and their human dignity. Like many of the Jews, in their flight they find themselves in a country and situation where they also are prevented from living with dignity. They believe the risk they will take to find their humanity protected. This is simply another step in their flight from persecution to hoped for safety.

The point at issue here is perhaps not the comparison with other groups, but the conditions under which they live in Indonesia, and therefore the reasonableness of their leaving it. As I have heard the story of life in Indonesia, it involves living in a poor nation which is not a signatory to the UNHCR Convention, and therefore with no commitment to protect refugees.

It involves also a wait of years with no guarantee of resettlement for people often with dependents at risk in their home country. It involves living in squalid conditions, great difficulty in working, discrimination, fear of harrassment by police and fear particularly for women, and a life with no opportunity to develop their gifts and contribute to society.

Many asylum seekers thought that for someone with courage, to take put one's life at some risk by fleeing to the possibility of a better life, and in the process entrusting one's life to a people smuggler, was both a reasonable and ethical option. I would not disagree with them.
Andy Hamilton | 25 February 2011

How easily we can demonize refugees and their methods of arrival and hold them in detention centres(gaols?)How slow ,expensive, cruel and wasteful is the administration for their entry to our country!Does anyone know how many Irish migrants have come to this country in the last two years(70,000?)How quickly they have been processed.

Thank you Andrew for your pertinent article and the conversation it has generated.
Chris | 25 February 2011

Considering a large portion of the present-day Australian population is descended from Irish emigrants fleeing economic and political persecution at home, it seems fairly hypocritical to take such a stance now against present day asylum seekers -a case of pulling up the ladder after reaching safety yourself! Or is it that the colour of most present day asylum seekers by boat is wrong??
Dr Michael Kissane | 26 February 2011

I am almost reluctant to enter this discussion, given that Andrew has already replied. I usually feel that the return of the original writer, commenting in response, should mark the close of the discussion.

But Andrew, I must ask why is the fear felt by refugees waiting in Indonesia "particularly [felt by] women"?

Because you give no reason for this assertion in your response, readers who know little about Indonesia can, and are likely to, infer that a refugee woman will be at greater risk of physical attack as a woman, in Indonesia than in Australia or in her country of origin. But this would not be true.

Belief in the sanctity of the human body and respect for women continues in Indonesia to a greater degree than in Australia. Despite Westernisation of major urban areas, the traditional respect for women has not been significantly degraded by commercialisation (as in "Sex sells") which we observe in major Australian cities.

I fully agree with the rest of your response, as also your original article. This unexplained assertion is something of a poison dart - so out of place in your otherwise well-argued humane comments.

Ian Fraser | 26 February 2011

Thanks Andy, for this great and very timely article. You are absolutely right in your views. Maybe you can get your work published in the Herald Sun and similar publications??

Congratulations on your work. It makes working with asylum seekers worthwhile, and is of course, a reminder of why we do it..

Katherine Rechtman | 26 February 2011

Thank you, Ian, for your comment and invitation to clarify what I meant. I can see that my sentence might bear the construction you gave it. I did not intend it, and I would wholeheartedly agree with your eloquent rebuttal of it.

What I meant was more generally intended. Asylum seekers anywhere are vulnerable to mistreatment and discrimination, and that too often takes the form of sexual harrassment and worse. That is not specific to particular nations. So male asylum seekers are often afraid for their wives and daughters both in the place where they are and in their own country from which they fled. That adds to their desire to find a place where they can find security and bring their threatened familes.
Andy Hamilton | 26 February 2011

Great words, well thought out. Thanks, Andy.
Jim McDermott, SJ | 27 February 2011

Under international law it is not people smuggling to give refugees a ride and our parliament are well aware of that fact having been told by our courts that the Indonesian fishermen are not smuggling, having ratified the smuggling protocol which excludes anyone seeking asylum and anyone who helps them from any form of punishment.

Here we are the only nation in the world who have put the refugee convention into domestic law and now criminalise one form of transport in direct conflict with Article 31 of the convention which also forbids punishent due to method of arrival.

Most refugees I know have paid 5 or more different people for transport but we only jail the poor devils who would otherwise starve in Indonesia because we have stolen their fishing grounds and polluted them.

It is no more people smuggling than flying to the moon but they are an easier way to demonise the passengers.
No-one is running around Afghanistan enticing anyone to leave, if so they would pay them to leave instead of being paid.
Marilyn Shepherd | 27 February 2011

Thanks Andrew for your reply to my concern about the unguarded comment re refugees waiting in Indonesia.

And thank you, Marilyn Shepherd, for the detail re Article 31. It amazes me how so many Australians - perhaps a majority, given the support they have from parliamentarians on both sides of the House - continue to refer to asylum seekers as illegal immigrants.

And as for our courts, jailing the Indonesian fishermen and burning their boats is nothing short of revenge against those who are paid the least for their part in the refugees' flight.

Why revenge? Well, it's certainly not a deterrent! Punishing the fishermen is striking out in frustration at the ferrymen, because we cannot catch the organisers.

And the myth of Australia as the land of the fair go continues ...

Ian Fraser | 27 February 2011

Thank you Andrew for explaining in reasoned and compassionate terms why people become refugees. Of course, the reason that Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison,Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and others have vilified asylum seekers is because they are playing to the racist grandstand for their own political purposes. They never acknowledge that many refugees are in dire straits because of the US wars that they have supported. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that many people smugglers are opportunists who are prepared to risk other people's lives to make a profit. They are not alone in this regard, however. Many executives in big business do this everyday! It is a pity that Tony Abbott did not develop a sense of compassion and social justice when he was a student of the Jesuits at Riverview College in the early 1970s. Sadly, in those days, many there were not very progressive as those publishing Eureka Street today. Please continue your support for human rights for all.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 27 February 2011

This small story may have some relevance when looking at the storm over "people smugglers". In 1947 my late husband, than aged 22, engaged a "smuggler" to help him over a minefield to escape the repression of Russian communism in his birth country of Hungary. He also paid a "helper" to find him a place in a barrel in a truck to get him over the border into Austria where he (and others) were engaged as farm laborers until they got themselves into Italy and the luckydip of getting on a boat to Australia. He did not see his family again until the mid 80's when it became possible to travel there. He then worked for the government for 2 years before eventually gaining Australian citizenship. He was never a burden on this country which he loved.
Mary Maraz | 01 March 2011

Excellent thought provoking article. How can it be made more broadly accessible to the rest of the community and politicians??
Sue Foster | 08 March 2011

I have met "people smugglers" in their home land of Indonesia. They were like the asylum seekers , namely they were prepared to do whatever it took to earn enough to give their family a chance in this dog-eat-dog world called the non-western world. Most were fishermen. There were those who organised it and they are everywhere as the scum who parasitise off others and profit hugely. That of course is not the question. The question remains how will I treat the stranger who knocks on my door asking for help? The answer has little to do with who they are or why they came. The answer reflects the person that I am or want to be. I want to be someone who shows compassion and hospitality to the stranger.That is my Christ given mandate.
graham patison | 21 March 2011

One of the things we need to consider is the rumour among their own people that most of these Afghan and Pakistani asylum seekers are funded by Taliban. Vietnamese refugees were seen as 'poor' but only the rich could afford the price charged by people smugglers. The People smugglers may be part of some international crime syndicates, just like most of the Somali pirates who hijack ships.
walson | 24 March 2011


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up