Mandatory sentencing laws for people smuggling crews unfair - ALA

3rd Aug 2012

“Organisers behind people smuggling stand to make windfall profits from each boat, however the skippers and crews of these vessels are often just additional victims of this trade in human misery,” Australian Lawyers Alliance Northern Territory spokesman, Greg Phelps, said today.

Mr Phelps, who is acting for six poor Indonesian fishermen whose boats were illegally destroyed by the federal government along with any chance of putting food on the family table through fishing, said he had first hand knowledge of dispossessed fisherman being paid a pittance to man asylum seeker vessels with no understanding of the consequences under Australian law.

“The organisers of the trade treat their crews as disposable in the same way they expect to lose the boats on which they sail; it’s a part of their business model. The damaging mandatory sentencing laws for crews on people smuggling vessels are locking away poor fishermen and minors rather than the real culprits in the trade,” he said.

Mr Phelps was commenting on the federal opposition’s announcement that if elected it would reintroduce five year mandatory sentences of asylum seeker crews just a few days after the government announced a reversal on a similar long-held policy.

“Legislation targeting the crew is opportunist and might earn cheap votes but fails to grapple with the complex issues of poverty, fishing, environmental pollution and the rights of asylum seekers,” Mr Phelps said.

Judges have spoken out in anger about the way such laws had removed judicial discretion and were forcing inappropriately long sentences on people who had no understanding or intention of committing crimes. The judiciary had only just finished breathing a collective sigh of relief following a government announcement of an end to mandatory sentencing.

“To announce a plan to impose an extra two years on top of the three previously imposed will serve no other purpose than to rob two extra years of people’s lives and will do nothing to stop the trade. Meanwhile their families suffer great hardship in impoverished Indonesian fishing communities.”

Disturbingly, an Australian Human Rights Commission report the Age of Uncertainty, released this year, shows minors are also increasingly being swept up under such laws.

We have also heard stories of people’s families dying while they are in prison, because such families cannot afford simple medical treatment for asthma for children while the main breadwinner is imprisoned in Australia.

“And children are being taken out of school because families can’t afford to keep them there.

"Starvation and hunger make desperate people do desperate things. Locking such people up unfairly for years only threatens life, destroys families and increases mental suffering for people who have so little,” Mr Phelps said.

Tags: Human rights Asylum seekers and refugees People smuggling mandatory sentencing