Interview with Holland Winner

Antje Missbach authored the Holland Prize winning paper “Perilous Waters: People Smuggling, Fishermen, and Hyper-precarious Livelihoods on Rote Island, Eastern Indonesia”

1. Can you tell us about some of the intellectual and personal reasons you became interested in the subject?

Over the last few years, while living in Australia, I have witnessed the demonization of Indonesian fishermen who have transported asylum seekers to Australia. Hundreds of them have been arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned, among them many Indonesian boys under the age of 18. These people are depicted by politicians and the media as “evil”, relentlessly and without qualification, and it is assumed that, without their services, no asylum seekers would attempt to come to Australia and drown en route to the “lucky country”. This is, of course, not the case, because as long as people have to flee from their homelands for their lives, other people will be prepared to facilitate their journeys, for altruistic motivations and/or for personal gain.

2. What is the central argument of your article in a nutshell?

In line with the many policy changes to keep asylum seekers away from Australia’s shores, the Australian government has dedicated substantial resources to deterrence strategies and anti-smuggling campaigns. However, very little attention has been paid to the socio-economic reasons for the ease with which Indonesian fishermen were recruited by smuggling networks. In this article, I try to shed light on the precarious living conditions of fishermen-cum-smugglers and argue that Australian marine conservation laws have seriously limited livelihood options for these fishermen. Unable to make a living from fishing and burdened by massive debts, they are easily recruited for illegalized activities, such as transporting asylum seekers.

3. Were there any unexpected challenges or developments during the process of on-the-ground research?

Although the topic of my research was rather gloomy, I really enjoyed being on Rote. It is a really beautiful island and I got to meet many friendly people who welcomed me and shared their insights with me. So, while I was there I also learned about an oil spill that had taken place a few years earlier which have had many negative impacts on the environment and the livelihoods of fishermen and seaweed farmers in that area. Needless to say, the company in Australia responsible for the spill has not paid any compensation for the lasting damage it had caused.

4. What might be some of the implications of your argument and research for studies of decentralization (and/or other subjects) beyond Indonesia and Australia to other parts of Asia and the world?

Well, I guess irregular migration and the smuggling of asylum seekers are topics of concern in many parts of the world at the moment, not just in the Asia-Pacific region. It would be desirable if the hyper-politicized debates that thrive off vilifying single actors could turn their focus onto the real issues and ask why people fleeing for their lives have to rely on smugglers at all when they are looking for safety. Also, a number of tough questions need to be asked, about, for example, the extent to which asylum policies in Australia and many other countries have actually helped the smuggling industry to expand and become indispensable.

5. What did you find most challenging, rewarding, or interesting about the review process?

I must say the review process was the fastest ever. I was very impressed by the quick turn-around and, of course, the useful suggestions from the reviewers and the editor.

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