Wed, 30 Apr 2003

Asia Pacific vulnerable to people smuggling

Rita A.Widiadana and Wahyoe Boedhiwardhana, The Jakarta Post, Nusa Dua, Bali

The second regional ministerial conference on people smuggling and trafficking, and transnational crime opened here on Tuesday, with a call for closer cooperation among participating countries to fight the practices.

Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Hassan Wirayuda, during his opening speech, stressed the need to reaffirm commitments made during the first conference in Bali in February, 2002.

A statement issued during the first conference was used as the foundation for participating countries to set up two Ad-hoc working groups.

Increased participation at this year's conference was due to a growing awareness of the problems, Hassan said.

Ministers and senior government officials from 39 countries in the Asia-Pacific region are participating in this year's conference. Representatives from another 20 countries, including from Europe, the Middle-East and Africa, as well as the United States, are attending as observers.

Also present are delegations from 16 international organizations, including the International Organization of Migration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Red Cross.

The Ad-hoc Experts' Working Group on Legislative Framework, Policy Issues and Law enforcement, led by Maj. Gen. Krerkphong Pukprayura of Thailand, has completed a survey and assessment of participating country's relevant laws, established networks of cooperation among relevant law-enforcement agencies and has formulated model legislation that makes smuggling a crime.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told delegates that the world had witnessed a marked increase in the incidence of people smuggling, trafficking in persons and related transnational crimes, including drug trafficking, money laundering and arms smuggling.

"These activities create significant political, economic, social and security challenges.

"The Asia Pacific region has been the focal point for much of these activities. But, this conference is not about describing the problem. We know the challenges facing our region too well," Downer said, adding that the second conference would see how the participating countries could continue to meet the challenges.

Despite Indonesian promises, the country has done little to discourage the practices of people smuggling. Indonesian waters are often used as a transit point for people hoping to enter Australia illegally.

Last week, Indonesian authorities in Kalimantan provided 42 Vietnamese men, woman and children packed aboard an unseaworthy vessel with food and water before allowing them to continue on to Australia.

And despite repeated requests from Australian authorities for the extradition of an Egyptian man wanted for allegedly masterminding a smuggling operation, Indonesian authorities sent him to Egypt.

However, that attempt, when more than 350 people landed on Christmas Island in August 2001, was the last time a smuggling vessel from Indonesia has succeeded in reaching Australia.

The lack of further attempts has been put down to Australia's controversial hard-line approach to immigrants.

Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Marty Natalegawa said the Vietnamese case "illustrates that this is still an ongoing issue which we need to solve jointly."