Saleem Ali* was just 13 when his mother decided that paying strangers to smuggle him through several countries in the hope of reaching Australia was safer than keeping him with her and his sisters in Quetta, southwestern Pakistan.
The family had sought sanctuary in Quetta from the persecution they faced in Afghanistan as Shia Muslim Hazaras but, according to Ali, “my brother was killed by terrorists and [my mother] didn’t want the same to happen to me.” Raising the smugglers’ fee was difficult, he added. “She had to borrow the money.”
Another brother had made it to Australia a year earlier using the same route that Ali’s smugglers used through Thailand, Malaysia and, finally, Indonesia. “I was very scared,” Ali told IRIN. “I travelled with strangers.” He assumed, though, that he would soon join his brother in Australia.
Instead, his journey ended at one of two shelters for unaccompanied migrant children in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. He was transferred there five months ago after registering with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) soon after arriving in the country. By then, Australia had implemented Operation Sovereign Borders and fewer smugglers’ boats were departing from Indonesia, while those that did were intercepted and turned back.
According to UNHCR, about 5 percent of the more than 10,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia are so-called unaccompanied minors - children who have made often long and perilous journeys without a parent or guardian to care for them. Indonesian law makes no provision for such children and although the country has ratified the UN Convention on Rights of the Child, which obliges it to assign guardians to unaccompanied children, it has not done so.
Ali was fortunate to end up at the shelter. Currently, about 100 unaccompanied minors, most of them from Afghanistan, but also from Myanmar and a handful of other nationalities, are being held at 13 immigration detention centres across Indonesia, while a further 264 children are in detention with their families, according to UNHCR. Without guardianship, some children remain in detention for extended periods until space opens up in one of only three shelters.
The detention centre in Makassar on Sulawesi Island is said to be one of the better ones. Detainees are not confined to their rooms except at night time, they are allowed to cook their own food and many of them have cell phones they use to stay in touch with family. Nevertheless, said the centre’s director, Huntal Hamonangan, “our detention centre was not created for unaccompanied minors and families.”
When IRIN visited, 25 unaccompanied minors, mostly teenage boys from Afghanistan, were sharing one room. “It’s very hot and it’s so crowded that we can’t turn over at night,” said one of the boys, who has already been there for seven months.
A 2013 report by Human Rights Watch described the arbitrary detention of migrant children in Indonesia in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions for months or even years as having a severe impact on their physical and mental health, with many experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
In some cases, minors share cells with adults who sexually abuse them, said Fahra Amiroeddin, deputy programme manager at Church World Service (CWS), which manages the two Jakarta shelters in partnership with UNHCR.
A number of child migrants interviewed for the Human Rights Watch report said they had experienced beatings by immigration guards or adult detainees while in detention.
Muhammad Jalil*, 18, from Pakistan, was just 16 when he was taken to a detention centre in Bali following a failed attempt to reach Australia in a smugglers’ boat. He described conditions at the detention centre where he spent the next year as “dangerous”. He told IRIN: “The guards beat us and punished us for no reason.” When he and some other detainees went on a hunger strike to protest their incarceration, the guards beat his cell mate so badly that he was “in bed for a month”.
The Human Rights Watch report alleges that an Afghan migrant died after he was severely beaten by guards at an immigration detention centre in Pontianak in 2012 following an escape attempt. Three other asylum seekers who had tried to escape with him were also hospitalized, including a 17-year-old unaccompanied minor Ten employees at the centre subsequently received 10-month prison sentences for assault, but the report notes, “the government has not launched a systematic review of physical abuse in the immigration detention system,” nor has a complaints mechanism for detainees been put in place.
After three months, Jalil was interviewed by UNHCR and a month later he was granted refugee status, but he spent another seven months in detention before being transferred to one of the CWS shelters in Jakarta.
Although UNHCR can request the release of unaccompanied minors from detention, their release depends on finding somewhere safe to accommodate them. Besides the CWS shelters, the only other shelter in Medan, North Sumatra, is operated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in conjunction with the department of social welfare.
“We have limited space,” said CWS programme manager Dino Satria, noting that their two shelters are currently accommodating 70 boys, more than half of whom were transferred there after a period in detention (female unaccompanied minors are rare but CWS has placed one with a foster family and another at a government-run safe house).
Slim chances of resettlement
“It’s good for me [here] because I can study and wait for resettlement,” said Abdul Fatun*, 17, from Myanmar, who arrived at one of the shelters a few weeks ago after a 10-month stint in detention.
In fact, opportunities to study are mainly limited to language classes and activities offered at the shelter. “Accessing formal education is a big problem because most can’t speak Bahasa [Indonesia’s official language] and that’s a requirement for schools here,” said Satria.
Fatun’s chances of resettlement are also slim. In 2013, only five of the shelters’ residents were resettled. “Most are just waiting to turn 18, then they have to move out,” Satria told IRIN, adding that IOM usually offers them accommodation in refugee housing that it manages in a number of locations in Jakarta.
Jalil is staying in one such building where he passes the time studying English. After nearly 18 months in Indonesia, there is a good possibility he will be resettled in the USA. “I’ve done the interview, I’m just waiting for medical clearance,” he said.
UNHCR grants refugee status in about 75 to 85 percent of cases in Indonesia. For the relatively small number of unaccompanied minors whose applications are rejected, options are very limited. Deportation is rarely used by Indonesia's immigration authorities. In a small number of cases - just three in 2013 - IOM helps them to return home voluntarily.
*Not a real name