Thursday, July 08, 2010

People Smugglers as Slave Traders?

Plopped in a thread at LP...

It’s unedifying to read of otherwise progressive types picking up on the whole ‘people smuggler as slave trader’ narrative, without at least unpacking the differences between perhaps the odd overlord making handsome profits out of it all on the one hand and poor boat crews putting nasi in the mouths of their families on the other.

Wheel it right back to the ‘danger’ thing. Ever been on a boat, indeed any sort of basic transport used by the masses, in a developing country? I’ve caught rides on Indonesian fishing boats while backpacking, you sleep on the deck, in all weather, no safety rails, large families with chickens and bags of rice sleep there too, cramped on. You hope it doesn’t sink, as they sometimes do. If backpackers do this sort of thing by choice (and I’m not the only one, if you spend some time working through the eastern islands of Indonesia), is it really hard to imagine desperate refugees making the choice? Does it really prove the boat captains are exploitative? Are you sure they don’t put themselves at similar risk, going to work each day?

When I spent time in Papela, a ‘sea gypsy’ settlement on the island of Roti, I was shown the fresh graves. Tropical storm here, diving for sea cucumbers while breathing through an air compressor there. Dead children. Dead fishermen.

The truly evil smuggling cases I’ve read about- people packed into shipping containers, or having their documents removed so they can be held as bonded labourers, don’t seem to feature among those we demonise. Mostly, we just seem to be suddenly (and in a most faux act of unconvincing generosity) extending wonderful, first world expectations of reasonable care, as if the OH&S Act can be extended more easily that the right to claim refugee status or have that assessed through Australian tribunals.

The construction of the dreaded demonic, evil, people smugglers is one of the great acts of declaratory securitisation in a nation with a less than robust history of peering behind the rhetoric on matters foreign.

Here and there I’m sure they exist- nasty, exploitative figures making handsome profits while turning their back on the risks and consequences. But I never see any effort to distil these from the mass of general boat captains and crews, most of whom I suspect do not deserve this characterisation at all.

It doesn’t do anyone any credit to just simply adopt the dominant talking points on this.

1 comment:

Legal Eagle said...

Thank you Armagny. I had been thinking of writing a post like this, but you've gone ahead and written exactly what I was thinking.

I am so disappointed in the politics on this at the moment. So bitterly disappointed. Yes, I understand that there is a sector in society who feels threatened by boat people. But maybe we should look at different ways of solving this instead of pumping up border protection, and instead of making third-world countries bear the burden (as if they haven't had enough troubles of their own).