The groups of people who have suffered most from Australia’s long-standing absurdly politicised, disproportionate and irrational debate around asylum seekers are the asylum seekers themselves. But another group who have been subjected to disproportionate and unjustified punishment who get very little attention are the hundreds of impoverished Indonesian fishermen who are subjected to mandatory jail sentences for participating in transporting asylum seekers to Australia.
Of course, if we just disguise the reality by labeling all these people with the highly pejorative term ‘people smuggler’, it tends to automatically lead us not to care what happens to these people (and their families), even if by some accident we happen to find out.
So it was positive and pleasing to see a reasonably in-depth story by Christine Jackman in The Australian this weekend – yes, I can praise that newspaper when it does something good – showing not just the excessive suffering caused to these Indonesians who live in poverty few of us have experienced, but the pointlessness of these excessive and unjustified prison sentences as some sort of deterrent.
I was in the Parliament when the laws were passed which introduced mandatory minimum three year jail terms for anyone convicted of being involved in people smuggling – which is defined to ensure it catches all crew on a boat or organising a voyage, even if they receive no direct financial benefit themselves (as has occurred with someone charged who was trying to assist relatives who were refugees).
This wasn’t that long after there had been debates about the almost inevitable injustices which can occur when Parliaments insist on mandatory sentencing, regardless of circumstance, due to outrageous injustices being inflicted on mostly young Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, who due to a US-style ‘three strikes and you’re out’ mandatory sentencing law, had seen young kids jailed for nicking a few pencils.
Yet the federal Parliament passed these laws targeted at ‘people smugglers’ with mandatory three year minimum sentences with barely a blink. This happened in part because there was lots of the usual hairy chested bellowing about hitting the ‘Mr Bigs’ – I think some federal MP’s quite enjoyed a chance to jump on the law and order bandwagon that many of their state colleagues like to be part of – and also because the assumed targets/victims of the laws weren’t Australian, so no one was likely to get too upset about it.
But even such concerns as were raised were slapped with the sort of “who-could-defend-people-smugglers” rhetoric than, somewhat oddly Kevin Rudd decided to take to new depths with his “they should rot in jail – and hell” comment (which is quite aptly referenced in the piece in The Australian).
I am not suggesting that all crew members involved in transporting asylum seekers to Australia should be able to avoid any potential charge or penalty regardless of the circumstances. But I do believe enforcing mandatory jail terms is both unjust, and as the article in The Australian makes clear, also a very expensive and futile way to try to deal with the issue of asylum seekers trying to get to Australia.