Perilous waters: People smuggling, fishermen, and hyper-precarious livelihoods on Rote Island, Eastern Indonesia

Antje Missbach

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Recent research has found that since 2001 a disproportionate number
of Indonesian offenders sentenced to jail for people smuggling, both in
Indonesia and Australia, are fishermen from Eastern Indonesia, the poorest
part of the country2. Based on three field trips to the Eastern Indonesian
island of Rote, a frequent departure point for asylum seekers to Australia,
and semi-structured interviews, this article investigates the socio-economic
backgrounds of sentenced offenders from this area to explain their high
numbers amongst imprisoned people smugglers. Through the narratives of
fishermen who have been involved in the transport of asylum seekers, this
article seeks to reconstruct their decision-making and risk-taking strategies
in light of their generally precarious lives. Their motivations to become
involved in people smuggling are correlated with two structural problems
they face, overfishing and pollution, which have exacerbated their economic
situation over the last years. Understanding the local structural constraints
of these impoverished fishermen helps provide a clearer understanding of
why and how transnational people-smuggling networks succeed in recruiting
them. Rather than viewing the decision to become involved in people
smuggling as an individual's poor judgement and its negative outcome
as self-inflicted misery, this article stresses the notion of collective hyper precariousness, which is enhanced by extrinsic factors such as Australian policies that have further limited the meagre choices for making a living legally on Rote.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)749-770
Number of pages22
JournalPacific Affairs
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • hyper-precariousness
  • illegal(ized) and criminalized work
  • fishermen
  • people smuggling
  • Eastern Indonesia
  • Australia
  • imprisonment
  • structural poverty
  • subsistence livelihoods

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