Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 8, 2014

The People Smuggler (2012), by Robin de Crespigny

I bought this book after hearing the author speak at an author event at my local library – not because I needed to know more about the controversial issue of asylum seekers in Australia, because I consider myself well-informed about the subject already – but because I wanted to see if the book was likely to change any minds.   Our politicians seem convinced that the prevailing hostile attitude towards refugees who come here by boat is entrenched, so it might well be that a book has little chance of changing that.

But perhaps there are open-minded people who would like to know more about the reasons why people flee their home countries and then take extraordinary risks to come to Australia.  And if that is so, then The People Smuggler is a compelling story that makes a convincing case for Ali al Jenabi’s flight from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  It recounts the torture of his father and the loss of his mental health; the murder of his brother; his terrible time in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, his attempts to work with resistance groups, and his use of people smugglers to get out of the country.

Australian politicians have been demonising people smugglers for so long that it comes as no surprise to learn that when Ali arrives in Indonesia he is himself ripped off by a smuggler.  But it is made clear that these smugglers are providing a service that seems to be the only way some refugees can reach a safe haven.  Ali becomes a smuggler himself because it’s the only way he can raise the money to get his family out of Iraq to the safety of Australia – and he helps a large number of other people to get here too.  That is why the book is subtitled The True Story Of Ali Al Jenabi, The ‘Oskar Schindler Of Asia’.  

I am undecided about the author’s choice to tell this story using a first person recount based on interviews with the subject. It has immediacy, but given the emotive subject-matter, it sometimes feels manipulative.  The reader is processing a human history of torture and trauma, but feeling empathy for that doesn’t necessarily turn off one’s critical faculties.  I think the author’s hope is that hostility to refugees will dissipate as readers develop compassion for what refugees suffer, but because the Australian media has been feeding the public disinformation about this issue for so long, I wonder if the story might not have been better served by a more objective style.

An obvious opportunity for this comes towards the end of the book when Ali is brought to Australia to be charged with people smuggling.  His defence calls as witnesses, some of the people that he smuggled here.  It is one thing for Ali’s compelling voice to tell us that he brought women and children here at no cost, and that he made sure the boats were big enough and that they took the safest routes in the safest weather.  It would be less easy for people to dismiss this as self-serving evidence if there were also testimonies from some of the people that he helped.

I also think that a third-person narrative (or perhaps a mixture of the two) could have better addressed the matter of the UN processing of refugees.  Long before Ali considers Australia as a destination, he applies for refugee status in a refugee camp.  Despite his situation, his claim fails.  Yet when his family finally arrive in Australia, they (like almost all the other asylum seekers who get here) are deemed to be refugees – but he isn’t.  While this story isn’t the place for an exhaustive analysis of these inconsistencies, the explanation is too cursory to make sense.  And a few statistics to back up the claim about refugees languishing in camps for generations could have added further authenticity to this aspect of Ali’s story.

At the beginning of John A. Scott’s brilliant new novel N (see my review) there’s a scene in which the Fadden government turns away a shipload of Jewish refugee children.  One of the artists in the novel is haunted by the fate of this ship and as he tries to bear witness to it, he struggles desperately to recapture the colour of the rust that will take the children to their doom. Well, it was because so many shiploads of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were turned away and because their subsequent fate still hangs heavy on the conscience of the world, that the United Nations set up the Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory.

Yet today Australia’s attitude is stony-hearted.  The bipartisan policy towards refugees is gone and the deterrent strategy is cruelty to those who come here.  (By boat, that is.  Nobody gets tense about refugees who come by plane, as the overwhelming majority do).  Our politicians are content to capitulate to demagoguery.  Many Australians feel ashamed of this, but not enough of them, apparently.

Robin de Crespigny feels passionate about the refugee cause, and has written a compelling book to state the case and correct some of the disinformation that influences public opinion.  What she said at the author talk is that if each person who reads the book lends it to someone else so that the message spreads, perhaps attitudes will eventually shift.  I found myself thinking of other influential Australian women who tackled impossible issues and won, women like Caroline Chisholm, Faith Bandler, and Germaine Greer.

From little things, big things grow…

©Lisa Hill

Author: Robin de Crespigny
Title: The People Smuggler
Publisher: Viking Australia 2012
ISBN: 9780670076550
Source: Purchased from the Readings book-stall, on the night.

Fishpond: The People Smuggler: The True Story of Ali Al Jenabi, the ‘Oskar Schindler of Asia’


  1. I just finished reading this a couple of weeks’ ago. I get what you’re saying about the objectivity of the third person, but I loved the first person. The Iraq scenes wouldn’t have the same impact if told in third person, and they’re the scenes that set up the rest of the story. I didn’t mind feeling slightly manipulated at Ali’s version of events—that’s what we all do when telling our stories! Stick up for ourselves. I’ve rarely read a memoir where I haven’t felt that. I like that Ali is a slightly flawed character.


    • Hello Louise, welcome!
      Yes, I agree entirely about the power of Ali’s voice in that first part of the book, and the sweep of it would have been lost if it had been interrupted by an authorial voice presenting background verifications. Perhaps endnotes might have worked? I think the reason that this matters is that this is more than a memoir, it’s a work which is unashamedly trying to change people’s minds, and if the sceptical uncommitted are reading it, then the book needs to utilise every available technique to ensure that people aren’t troubled by doubts.


      • I see what you’re saying, but I think the author reaches more readers with this book reading as it does, like a memoir and not as a work aiming to sway the reader’s view. I also like that she doesn’t gloss over Ali’s flaws—for me, it made it more believable.

        Personally, I found the most potent parts of the story were the jail scenes in Iraq. Experiencing those through Ali’s eyes and in his authentic-sounding voice really affected me, so much that I could only read a paragraph at a time and needed a breather in between. At one stage I put the book down and said to my husband that I couldn’t keep reading. When he asked me why, I said that I couldn’t repeat to him what I’d just read, it was too upsetting. This impact would have been lost if the story was told any other way, and really, for me this was the crux of the story. This is why people flee their homelands and risk all on a rusty boat. This is why he had to get his family out. And this is the part that will change people’s minds, if anything will.

        Although, I suspect people who don’t want to change their minds won’t even attempt to read the book. I have an uncle who called asylum seekers ‘queue jumpers’. I told him I’d send him a copy of the book and he said, ‘Don’t bother. I won’t read it.’ I’ll still send it, though!

        I heard Robin de Crespigny at the Margaret River Writers’ Festival recently. She said she’d sent copies to over 100 politicians and the only ones who replied were the Greens …

        All of this, of course, is only my very humble opinion! I’m about to review the book myself, so it was timely to read yours. (I’ll mention your post when I write my review!) Happy reading!


        • Louise, your opinion is most welcome, like you I’m concerned to get the story out, and for me the only issue is what’s the most effective way. You make exactly that point with your anecdote about your uncle…. what is it that can break through that sort of attitude, which is reproduced all round Australia? He’s not going to read a free book sent to him with affection by a member of his own family. Not even to please her, and running the risk that her opinion of him will be the less because he has closed his mind on an issue that she cares about.
          I remember seeing politicians, one after the other, weeping in the parliament as they described reading The Stolen Children report – but did that emotional response change their attitudes – or anybody else’s much?
          This is the problem. I don’t have answers, only questions.


  2. I have not read this book but well done for presenting such an important post. The Australian government is absolutely embarrassing on this issue and the more people who know the truth about them the better. Though I realise the book was about much more than embarrassing the Aus. gov’t. The book sounds interesting and important.


    • Thank you, Pam:)
      Allow me to send it to you? That is what the author wants us to do when we’ve finished reading it. I’ll email you privately to get your address>)


  3. […] This book has been reviewed on many blogs—one of the best reviews can be found at ANZ Litlovers. […]


  4. […] Fiona Chong is reviewed at Readings, and no doubt there are others.  I myself recently reviewed The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny.  I think that there are a good many Australians who are appalled by […]


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