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Indonesian people smugglers or fishermen trying to feed their families?

By Melody Kemp - posted Tuesday, 2 August 2011

A powerfully muscled brown arm from the jetty above took hold of mine and began to haul. My colleague Wiranti, and I scrambled up the rotting timbers from the wildly rocking fishing boat in which we had arrived at one of the many tiny islands in Indonesia’s Wakatobi Marine Park, south east of Sulawesi. Jokes in Indonesian, many of them ribald, accompanied our ascent from sea to land. Lowering our backpacks, we shook our hair in the cool breeze from the Banda Sea.

The jailing last week of yet more Indonesian fishermen for supposed people smuggling offences brought back memories of the time I spent in Indonesia teaching safety and survival at sea. Wiranti and I had been hitching between islands for three months staying with fishing communities.

The fishermen’s arrest and jailing we were told would send a message that such activities would not be condoned. The smug parental tone, now far too often the background music of Australian political and bureaucratic managerialism, fell well short of any understanding of the lives led by these men and women. Quite simply if it’s a choice between illegal activities and feeding the wife and kids, illegal wins every time, particularly as the Indonesian political system in which they live conducts itself with varying degrees of cupidity.


While the Australian government seems more like a coterie of strict disciplinarians, sociologists, or anyone with some understanding of cause and effect have been booed off the stage. Thus the victims continue to be not only blamed, but incarcerated as well.

Two women hitching around the islands teaching safety and survival, attracted a large and curious reception at the jetty. This community was poor. The women wore faded batik sarongs, the men in shredded trousers, and the kids naked or in dirty T-shirts stretched over worm-infested bellies.

Between the islands of Riau, south of Singapore, to West Papua we heard stories of privation, narrow escapes, extraordinary endurance and tragedy. Artisinal fishers along with upland farmers are usually the world’s most destitute, but despite their material poverty, we were invariably greeted with generosity, humor and openness. Food appeared served on the floor, and quilts piled high to make beds while our hosts snored on the bamboo slat floors. I learned to publicly wash and shampoo my hair in one bucket of water. While surrounded by sea, drinking water is all too scarce.

What was increasingly obvious was that development was driving them further into poverty and into illegal activities. Fishing villages in the main are outside the purview of mainstream development activities. Increasing urban wealth and large international fleets have added to regional marine environmental destruction. Small-scale fishermen see their income retreating like the daily tide.

To most Australians, Indonesian islands are holiday locations. For the residents, islands hold no romance: only wild weather and soils too poor for agriculture. Wells dry up during protracted El Nino’s. Fishing and the occasional scam is often all there is.

Government officials, I often heard take every opportunity for some free range rent seeking or gate keeping. Women said they each paid the Coast Guard 3.6 million rupiah (about A$320) for their husbands, whose boat had sunk beneath them. Their average daily income was 43,000 rupiah (40 cents).


In the face of the banality of everyday illegality, a windfall profit from carrying people across what they regard as nominal borders is better than hunger.

Richer neighbors have vacuumed the sea floors, paying off the authorities. Local well-connected mobs export live, high value fish under the cover of darkness to Hong Kong. During the 11 years I lived in Indonesia, coral trout sold in the markets shrunk from 1.8 kilos to barely 300 grams.

Fishermen have one of the most dangerous occupations is the world. Wild carnivorous seas, winds that can lift you off the decks and far out to sea, sea junk that fouls the props of clapped out outboards, and general poor health, makes life hazardous. Fishers, classified as self-employed, are not eligible for social security.

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About the Author

Melody Kemp is a freelance writer in Asia who worked in labour and development for many years and is a member of the Society for Environmental Journalism (US). She now lives in South-East Asia. You can contact Melody by email at

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