Why The War On People Smugglers Will Fail


A few months ago, Bob Carr said the war on drugs has failed. He’s entirely right. But isn’t it time to acknowledge that another war — the one against people smugglers — has proved equally catastrophic?

Carr’s name appeared alongside other luminaries (former federal police chief Mick Palmer, the former NSW director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery, QC, the former West Australian premier Geoff Gallop, a former Defence Department secretary, Paul Barratt, the former federal health ministers Michael Wooldridge and Peter Baume, and the drug addiction expert Alex Wodak) demanding that the law and order approach to illegal drugs be abandoned.

Similar calls have been made overseas. "End the war on drugs," pleaded the Global Commission on Drug Policy, in a report endorsed by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Mexico’s former President Ernesto Zedillo, Brazil’s ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, the then Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou and others.

What does that have to do with people smugglers?

Richard Nixon coined the phrase "war on drugs" in 1971. Thereafter, the US approach to drug policy became increasingly punitive, and an orientation to military-style campaigns against traffickers was exported around the world.

The "war on drugs" appealed in its moral simplicity: politicians deplored the evil results of the drug trade, and then promised to crack down on those responsible.

But there was an innate circularity to the approach, something that ensured its continuance for more than 40 years. That is, the very prohibition on drugs makes their social consequences far more extreme, and those social consequences then generate support for further prohibitions.

As the New York Times recently explained, "there’s a reason coke and heroin cost so much more on the street than at the farm gate: you’re not paying for the drugs; you’re compensating everyone along the distribution chain for the risks they assumed in getting them to you."

A kilo of cocaine worth around $2000 in the mountains of Peru might bring in more than $100,000 to those who sell it in the US. Such prices have consequences all down the line. Dealers, keen to maximise profits, adulterate their product with deadly additives, thus increasing health risks for users. Addicts need to raise extraordinary amounts of money to support their habits. Inevitably, many turn to prostitution and crime.

Drug suppliers make fortunes. The South American drug cartels earn between $18 billion and $39 billion (depending on whose estimates you believe) from sales in the United States each year. With so much money at stake, the cartels are incredibly violent and ruthless. The murder rate in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez currently stands at 189 per 100,000 (the Australian equivalent is 1.8).

Drugs in turn become inexorably associated with death and vicious criminality, so much so that calls for ever escalating crackdowns become only logical, hence the circularity. As journalist Frank Viviano noted, after his own encounter with a Guatemalan narco gang, "the more money the North spends on the War on Drugs, the more it breeds trafficking, bloodshed, and the corruption that feeds them". Yet, up to a certain point, that very association between drugs and bloodshed only provides more fuel for the drug war.

That’s why a comparison with policies to asylum seekers makes sense.

Over the last years, Australian politicians have competed with each other to denounce people smugglers.

"People smugglers are the vilest form of human life," Kevin Rudd notoriously said. "[T]hey should rot in jail and in my own view, rot in hell." Julia Gillard agrees; smuggling is, she says, "an evil trade to be punished".

The penalties reflect that rhetoric. People smugglers now face up to 20 years jail for boats carrying more than five passengers, sentences that put them in the same category as terrorists or murderers.

Yet what exactly makes people smugglers so self-evidently evil? Oskar Schindler was, of course, a people smuggler — should he rot in hell, too?

The difference, we’re told, is that those behind the boats today are not humanitarians but professional criminals motivated only by money. They prey on the desperate, and induce them to risk their lives in unsafe vessels.

Yet all that, of course, stems directly from the war on people smuggling. Because it’s illegal to help asylum seekers, it’s only criminals (or their dupes) who will do it. Like drug dealers, the boat operators can charge whatever they want, knowing their desperate customers have no choice but to pay.

With the Australian government confiscating and destroying vessels carrying asylum seekers, the smugglers only send boats that are old and unsafe, knowing they’ll never return. In precisely the same way as the war on drugs forces users to mix with criminals and risk their lives on unsafe doses, the crackdown on people smugglers directly makes the (entirely legal) process of seeking asylum into a deadly gamble.

In discussion with the Sydney Morning Herald, Nicholas Cowdery outlined what a rejection of the old thinking on drugs might involve.

"The key as I see it," he explained, "is to try to reduce substantially the profit potentially able to be made by criminal activity in the drug trade and the only way to do that as I see it, ultimately, is to legalise, regulate, control and tax all drugs."

Again, the parallels are obvious. Desperate people escaping persecution do not want to pay huge sums to criminals in order to travel on dangerous boats — but they’ll do it if there is no other option. So let’s provide those options. Legalising people smuggling would be good start. If asylum must come by boat, they’re much less likely to die if they’re taking part in a legal trade.

But that’s only the beginning.

In the same way as the war on drugs has crowded out any other approaches the overwhelming focus on punitive responses to asylum seekers (more camps! tougher laws!) means that the Australian public debate never even attempts to answer the most fundamental questions. Why, for instance, are so many people are fleeing Afghanistan (and nearby Pakistan)?What particular obligations might this raise for a country like Australia that has been a key partner in the war devastating that region for eleven years?

In April this year, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen visited Sri Lanka, he issued a statement announcing an intention to "work… closely with Sri Lanka on issues relating to people smuggling, including preventing and disrupting people smuggling ventures by air and sea." But what pressure is Australia putting on that country to cease the murderous oppression forcing so many Tamils to flee for their lives? Why are we not talking about that?

Even more importantly, there’s very rarely any discussion on how exactly Australia seeks to help those with no choice but to flee their homes. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 (an invasion in which Australia was shamefully complicit) produced millions of refugees, most of them still languishing in camps in the region. What avenues are provided for those people to claim asylum, without having to travel thousands of kilometres?

In the Age today, Jessica Irvine makes a very simple but compelling point: "If we want to stop the boats, the best way might be to fire up the 747 turbo engines and simply fly people here, legally and safely, in the first place. If we want to deter desperate people from making a treacherous journey, let’s make it known in international refugee processing centres around the world: there is an easier path to Australia and an open door on arrival for those who follow it."

Of course, Irvine’s approach seems politically impossible, given the increasingly unhinged "stop the boats" rhetoric that currently prevails. But, again, that’s why the comparison with the drug war’s circularity matters. At present, the policies implemented on refugees help create the climate in which those policies are discussed — they associate asylum seeking with criminality, with deception, with death.

That’s why the debate must be reframed.

"The prohibition of illicit drugs is killing and criminalising our children and we are letting it happen," explained the report endorsed by Bob Carr. The policy on people smugglers is just as deadly. It’s time to change course.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.