People smugglers – villains and heroes. John Menadue

Jan 2, 2014

In 2009 Kevin Rudd called people smugglers ‘the absolute scum of the earth … who should rot in hell’.  Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison echo and expanded this view.

Others will point to people smugglers like Oskar Schindler who saved hundreds of lives.

Life is anything but simple for people facing persecution. There will be grades of grey rather than black and white when we look at the history of people escaping from persecution to freedom. We know that some agents helping people flee may be driven by greed. Some will have genuine humanitarian concerns.

The focus on people smuggling has the effect, partly by design, to divert attention from vulnerable and desperate people that need our protection. It is condescending for anyone to suggest that they know better what is good for people facing persecution and using agents or people smugglers. Scott Morrison has been reported as telling colleagues that he is genuinely concerned about deaths at sea. But is that the whole story? The focus on people-smugglers and the risks at sea is in many instances hypocritical humbug designed to hide the brutality of policies and actions.

We wax indignantly about people smugglers who bring people by boat but ignore the people smugglers who help bring people by air. Some people smugglers are seen to be OK!

Governments need to be concerned when asylum seekers use people-smugglers to take them on dangerous and possibly fatal journeys. But where there is persecution and violence and no legitimate or obvious way to escape, asylum seekers, if they have the money, will probably turn to people smugglers.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews who came to Australia and other countries during and after WWII paid people smugglers or agents to escape. In our own region, people smugglers provide a valuable service to help North Koreans escape into China across the Tumen River.

If there is a need someone will provide a service to help people escape.

It is also legitimate for governments to make a distinction between people trafficking and people smuggling. In the case of people trafficking, the object is usually the exploitation of persons in the country of destination. Prostitution is an obvious example. In many cases people smuggling does offer the prospect of freedom in the country of destination- at a price.

Just look at some of the famous or infamous people smugglers in recent history. In all of them there was a mixture of heroism and perhaps some opportunism.  We all have better angels and darker angels. We are all likely to respond differently depending on the circumstances.

OSKAR SCHINDLER is what we would describe today as a ‘colourful business identity’. He is credited with saving 1,200 Jews during the holocaust. He was initially an opportunist interested mainly in profit. His front was the Nazi intelligence service. He worked the black-market and bribed officials extensively. He had been a bankrupt and fined for public drunkenness. He was a well-known womaniser with a drinking problem. He was chronically in debt. Yet in the end he was a hero. He was named ‘Righteous among the Nations’ by the Israeli Government.

CHIUNE SUGIHARA was the Japanese Consul General in Lithuania in the 1940s. He disobeyed his government in Tokyo and illegally issued visas for Jews to escape occupied Nazi territory. 6,000 Jews were thus able to escape via Vladivostok to Kobe in Japan on the trans-Siberian railway. After Soviet imprisonment, he returned to Japan and was forced to resign by the Japanese government. He was also named ‘Righteous among the Nations’ by the Israeli Government.

CARL LUTZ persuaded German officials, including Adolf Eichmann, to tolerate his protection of Hungarian Jews. He is credited with saving over 62,000 Jews, the largest rescue operation of Jews in WWII. He was also named ‘Righteous among the Nations’ by the Israeli Government.

RAOUL WALLENBERG is widely celebrated for the rescue of over 10,000 Jews from Nazi occupied Hungary. His family had strong commercial links with the Nazi government. He facilitated the issue of false documents and bribed Hungarian and German officials. He won the support of Adolf Eichmann. He was also named ‘Righteous among the Nations’ by the Israeli Government.

These people were all people-smugglers. They did it for various motives. Almost all broke the rules, forged documents and bribed officials.

When we join in the attacks on people smugglers we should recall the lessons of history. Hundreds and thousands of people both in the past and in the present owe their freedom to people smugglers.

Last Sunday was ‘Holy Family Sunday’ which recalls the story of the plight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt. That flight is often depicted in religious art as being assisted by a young guide. Perhaps the Holy Family was helped by a people smuggler wonder what Tony Abbott thought as he heard the gospel story!

People smugglers exist because there is a demand for their services. Would any father with daughters facing the threat of the Taliban in Afghanistan refuse to pay a people smuggler if that was the only way to provide protection.

We should choose our words carefully when condemning people smugglers. Unfortunately the attacks on people smugglers are often dishonestly designed to take attention away from the real issue – desperate people in need of protection.

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