The People Smuggler

“People smugglers are the vilest form of human life. They trade on the tragedy of others and that’s why they should rot in jail and in my own view, rot in hell.” Kevin Rudd, 2009.

Robin de Crespigny gives us a truer picture of this industry in her book, ‘The People Smuggler’. The book tells the story of Ali Al Jenabi, born in Iraq in 1970, the eldest of eleven children. After Saddam Hussein came to power in Iraq in 1979, he began imprisoning, torturing, and executing anyone who spoke against him. When a teacher overheard the young Ali Al Jenabi saying that his father had called Saddam ‘a bastard’, Ali’s father was taken away and jailed. (I’m imagining our jails if that were the case here …)

Refusing to fight in Saddam’s army meant that Ali and his younger brother, Ahmet, were also jailed at Abu Ghraib. Ali was separated from his brother and placed in a cell with twenty-seven other men, in squalid conditions, not knowing when he might be taken away for torture or even execution. Each time they heard the guards coming, they held their breath until someone else’s name was called. Sometimes the prisoner returned, beaten, broken, or mutilated; sometimes they didn’t return at all. Apart from being tortured himself, Ali witnessed the horrifying mutilation of his younger brother, following which he never saw him again. Upon release, Ali began working with the resistance in Kurdistan.

‘I want justice for my brother, my father, and all those countless thousands lying in mass graves.’

When two of his friends were executed, Ali fled to Iran, then smuggled his family out to join him. After the United Nations rejected the family’s application for refugee status, Ali realised their only hope was to get to Indonesia and from there, to Australia. In Indonesia, with no money left to bring his family out, he began people smuggling. He eventually paid for his family’s passage to Indonesia, and put them onto one of his boats to Australia.

De Crespigny has written Ali’s story in first person so it reads with the immediacy of a memoir. Some scenes were difficult to read, and I had to close the book. When my husband asked why, I couldn’t tell him—I couldn’t repeat what I’d just read. To quote Ali:

‘What is it,’ I  say, ‘that drives one human being to want to inflict terrible pain and suffering on another for no reason?’

I’ve taken my time writing this review just as I took my time reading this book. I needed time to digest it—it’s harrowing and all the more so because it is true. I wanted to do it justice because I want people to read it, and I want more than just the converted to read it. We have no idea of how blessed our lives are here in Australia until we read a book like this. We have no idea of the cruelty of some governments. We have no idea of the conditions under which people live. Where family members are set up so they can be blackmailed into reporting other family members to the government. Where secret police follow anyone who looks even slightly suspicious. Where the government taps your phone waiting for you to say something derogatory about them. Where guards amputate a finger of your brother’s each time you don’t give the answer they want. Where each night you hear your father, driven to madness in solitary confinement, repeatedly calling out, ‘Saddam is a bastard’ .

That’s why we need to read books like this, as harrowing as it might be. I have a firm belief that we in Australia need to think as global citizens, that we must be compassionate, that we need to accept refugees who arrive by boat. There are very good reasons why people risk their lives getting on a rusty boat to Australia:

‘There is little talk of what the refugees are running from, or recognition that most of them would prefer to die in the ocean while attempting to escape than at the hands of torturers or executioners in their own country.’

The Australian Federal Police eventually caught up with Ali in Thailand and he was tried in Darwin in 2003. By the end of the trial, even the judge was sympathetic.

‘Justice Mildren goes on to say he accepts ‘that the prisoner was concerned to assist his family and that he did what he could on occasions to assist others who were unable to pay fully. I accept also that he did show special consideration for families with children.’

Ali was jailed for four years instead of the recommended thirty-five, of which he’d already served two-and-a-half years at the time of the trial. Over ninety per cent of the people Ali smuggled into Australia were found to be genuine refugees. Ali’s family, his mother, three brothers, two sisters and an uncle, have been granted citizenship and now live in Sydney. Ali lives with them but is still on a visa ‘Pending Deportation’ due to his ‘criminal’ past. This means he is unable to work or enjoy the rights that the rest of his family have. You can view this clip of Ali and his family when his story appeared on 7:30 in 2011 here.

For me, there were two other messages this book brought home. Not only does it show how cruel humans can be, but also how kind. Along the way there was always someone willing to risk their life to help Ali and his family. The other thing that stood out to me was Ali’s resilience. No matter how many horrific things he’d witnessed, or how many times he was caught and incarcerated, or what torture he was subjected to, he never gave up. He kept pulling himself back up and out, and continuing his fight.

This is an important book, historically and politically. I hope that at some time in the not-too-distant future, the political climate in this country will change and just as once upon a time it seemed too much to hope that indigenous people might be recognised as the true custodians of this country, or that women might be considered intelligent enough to vote, or that homosexuality would not be illegal, I hope that one day readers of this book will be able to say, ‘Oh, look how badly we used to treat asylum seekers …’ and recognise that all human beings on this earth have the same rights as each other.

As a relevant aside, I had a Vietnamese taxi driver take me home after my cancelled plane flight last week. (Read about that here.) I asked him how long he’d been here.
‘Forty years,’ he said.
‘How did you come?’
‘By boat,’ he said. ‘After the war. My wife and son and daughter. We say, we either live together or we die together.’

We talked more in the half-hour trip and I heard about his philosophies on life and work, and even on reincarnation. His daughter is a GP in Melbourne and his son is in business in Sydney. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to him and his family now if they were trying to come to this country by boat …

The People Smuggler‘, by Robin de Crespigny, Penguin Books, 2012  $29.99

The People Smuggler website has lots more information about Robin and Ali, as well as videos of Robin speaking and a letter for Mr Morrison on Ali’s behalf.

This book has been reviewed in many articles and on many blogs—a recent and good review can be found at ANZ Litlovers.



This is my sixth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2014. I’m currently reading ‘Gilgamesh’ by Joan London and thoroughly enjoying it. I’m nearly finished so I’m hoping to be able to review that soon …