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Published in The Drum MAY 9 and Canberra Times 14 MAY 2012

Ali Al Jenabi is a survivor; he is resourceful, and compassionate. He takes his responsibilities to others seriously, particularly toward his family which is central to his existence. These responsibilities have cost him dearly. He has lost his wife and child and the only woman he loved. I have met Ali on several occasions, once in Villawood with my wife, he is a good person.

In 1991 aged twenty, Ali, his father and eighteen year old brother Ahmed were picked up by Saddam Hussein’s secret police, thrown into the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad and tortured. Put before his bleeding brother whose hands are nailed to a table, they say each time he does not answer a question they will take another finger off. It is then that he notices that his brothers little finger has already been chopped off. Ali is asked what political group he belongs to. Saying he knows nothing of political groups, Saddam’s thugs chop another finger off the hand of his brother.

Ali never sees Ahmed again. He and his father are eventually released, but his father is a broken man, so much so, that Ali must assume responsibility for the family, his mother and six brothers and sisters. His need to provide for the family has him working long hours. When a younger brother falls down a well and drowns it is Ali who must retrieve the body. Two other brothers are detained in prison.

Eventually it becomes apparent that the family will have to leave Iraq and it is Ali who must put himself in the hands of people smugglers, first to get into semi autonomous Kurdistan, then Iran, later Turkey, in an attempt to get to Europe, and then Malaysia and Indonesia to try to get them to Australia. Lack of money and dishonest operatives in the informal transport network push Ali into the so called people smuggling business, where he manages to get ten members of his immediate family to Australia plus another five hundred persecuted and deserving souls.

All this and a lot more is contained in a tight, powerful and extraordinarily well written book, “The People Smuggler “, by author and film maker Robin De Crespigny. It might have been called ‘The Enabler’ or ‘A Compassionate Man’. This is a book which highlights the provincialism, the meanness, fear and naval gazing of the Australian ruling class. It is a book which glories in the strength, courage and compassion of the human spirit. It is a book which says as much about Australia as it does about Iraq. It is being launched at the writers’ festival in Sydney on 17 May.

Ali is eventually ‘captured’ by an AFP entrapment scheme in Thailand, in April 2002, which sees their Iraqi informer, residing in Indonesia, eventually given $250,000 and permanent residency in Australia. The informer was involved in the departure of SIEVX, which again raises questions about the knowledge and involvement of the AFP with the ill fated voyage of that vessel. We also get an insight into the murky world of corrupt police, navy, customs and other officials, in which the AFP and people smugglers operate in Indonesia.

From the time of his apprehension and detention in Australia Ali’s story is one of unspeakable cruelty. He is not physically tortured but he is, psychologically and emotionally, all in the name of making an example of a people smuggler.

Taken through the court system in Darwin, for a ‘crime’ that does not exist in Indonesia, where it was ‘committed’, Ali was sentenced by a sympathetic judge, which could have been ten years, but when boiled down amounted to one year and nine months. The Judge, His Honour, Justice Mildren said, “As to the prospects of rehabilitation, I doubt if he will offend again when he is released. I accept that he has a remarkably stoic and positive outlook on life and will probably pursue his trade as a tailor.” During the course of this trial it is determined and accepted by the prosecution that there is no such thing as a queue of, or for, asylum seekers.

Upon release from prison at the end of his sentence, Department of Immigration officials are waiting for him. One tries to get him to sign a form which will see him immediately deported to Iraq, the other takes him aside, spelling out his right to request asylum, which he does. His case is heard and nothing is done for nearly a year, although under Australian law a decision must be given within 90 days. The matter is brought before the Federal Court and a Judge orders the Department of Immigration to hand over relevant documents, amongst which is a recommendation, by the case officer Kate Watson, that Ali be granted refugee status. The Department, presumably at government direction, have sought to pervert the course of justice with respect to Ali’s legitimate claim. They also made life hell for Kate. Nice people.

The matter went to the Minister, Chris Evans, for a decision, who instead of issuing a permanent visa issued a Removal Pending Bridging Visa. Later the new Minister, Chris Bowen, endorsed this decision, which is still in force. It meant that he could not be joined by his Indonesian wife and child, who has since divorced him, and subsequent to that by a childhood sweetheart from Iraq, who, in the absence of his being able to travel to see her, was pushed into a loveless marriage by her family. It has also meant that Ali cannot work.

Evans and Bowen could have made a difference but spooked by Abbott and Scott Morrison, they threw what little moral courage and decency they have to the wind. Morrison is an interesting study in parochialism and political opportunism. His experience of life is limited, he is as sharp as a tack and twice as flat headed. He has never been confronted with the harsh realities of life, much like Abbott, Rudd, Howard, Bowen and Gillard. He and they, have no experience of war and the human suffering that attends it.

Weak people make tough decisions, usually to protect themselves. Without fear of contradiction, none of the current political leadership has ever been faced with, or been in a position where terrified and pleading individuals sought assistance, protection and succour. They have never seen people released from prison beaten black and blue and reeking of fear. Yet they act as if they have. They crave respect; an impossibility, except from sycophants and rent seekers.

The threat to Australia is not from terrorism but from the fear of it, an irrational fear, which has led to the demonization of so called people smugglers and boat people. On this issue both sides of politics play to the lowest common political denominator. Why? Is it xenophobia, racism or both? The number of people coming by boat is insignificant; they do not have the money to come by plane and as the book shows, the majority have made exemplary citizens, in most cases better than their irrational critics.

Bowen, Morrison, Abbott, Pell, Jensen, Howard, Rudd and Gillard should read this book. It will give them an understanding into real compassion, commitment, humanity and loyalty and maybe then they will become advocates for Ali and others who carry his cross. Howard famously said, in spite of Australian law and UN Conventions which Australia signed, that he would decide who came to Australia and when. Provincial arrogance, the world is a far more complex environment than Howard was able to grasp.

Rudd infamously and immaturely said, “People smugglers are the vilest form of human life, they trade on the tragedy of others, and that is why they should rot in jail and, in my own view, rot in hell.” Whatever it took, but it didn’t work to keep Rudd and nor will it work for Gillard.

Some people smugglers, like some politicians are bad and some are good. They exist because of need. The source of the problem lies in the home countries of refugees. People do not leave home on a whim; they do not put themselves in danger for a better job. Vanstone and Ruddock, on ABC JJJ the other night, were prepared to trot out the same old gutless platitudes to protect their past flawed decisions. They had not read the book. I suggest they do before making fools of themselves, yet again, in the public domain.

Ali will get there sooner than later with friends like Robin De Crespigny, Ngareta Rossell, Steven Blanks, John and Trish Highfield, Sister Aileen Crow and the thousands of others who will now join with him as a result of the book, the likes of which I have not read for a long time.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, former diplomat and retired people smuggler. He was in Afghanistan during the war with the Soviet Union. He has been involved with refugees since his first posting to Pakistan in 1972, until his last in Sri Lanka in 1994. From 1995 to 2000 he was a Member of the Refugee Review Tribunal. His experience is that DFAT, Immigration and other Commonwealth departments do not give a Tinkers Cuss about refugees. Bruce helped many people escape from apartheid South Africa. He believes, there but for the grace of God go I.