(Jakarta) -- In 2012, Indonesia reached a milestone. For the first time in recent history, the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Indonesia topped 1,000. Yet Indonesia—a country with many of its own children abroad—doesn’t protect the vulnerable newcomers. Instead it detains, abuses, and neglects them.
Unaccompanied migrant children in Indonesia, who are traveling without parents or other adults to protect them, come from countries like Afghanistan, Burma, and Somalia. Because of conflicts in these places, the numbers of these children have been growing steadily over the last five years as they look for refuge, for an education, for a safe future. Many make the risky decision to move on to Australia in smugglers’ boats, a trip that can be fatal.
Human Rights Watch first met “Faizullah,” a 17-year-old Afghan refugee from the Hazara ethnic group, in Medan last August. Faizullah and his family were already refugees, living in Quetta, Pakistan, when harassment of Hazaras escalated there. Fearing for the boy’s future, Faizullah’s family scraped together $12,000 to pay smugglers to take him by plane, boat, and foot to Indonesia.
When Faizullah was arrested in Indonesia, he said, he told the police he was 17. Rather than finding some care for this boy, half a world away from home, the police arrested him. Faizullah spent the next seven-and-a-half months in a detention center in Pontianak—five of them entirely indoors. When he was finally allowed into the detention center’s recreation space, he said, “How can I explain what it’s like when we went out? We were like the wild, running all around. We were thinking we were alive again.”
During his time in detention, the guards confined him to an overcrowded, often-flooded cell with adults he didn’t know, he said, and hit him several times in the face. He described an atmosphere of routine violence, saying the guards “beat [detainees] with everything—glass, boxes, anything around.”
Faizullah was eventually released—but the Indonesian government never assigned him a guardian to care for him, as international law requires. Indonesia has no asylum law, so Faizullah cannot gain legal status in the country, and he faces constant threat of re-arrest and further detention.
Indonesia is increasingly taking measures to protect Indonesians working abroad, including children, and it has ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.
In sharp contrast, Indonesia does nothing to assist unaccompanied migrant children in Indonesia. The inaction amounts to neglect. Indonesia has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and so is obliged to provide unaccompanied children with guardians, but it hasn’t assigned that role to any government entity. Indonesia also ignores international legal standards that make detention of unaccompanied migrant children a last resort, keeping hundreds of children in detention in any given month. Like Faizullah, they are typically detained with unrelated adults, vulnerable to exploitation, and sometimes beaten by guards. People held for a long time in immigration detention often become depressed or even get post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly acute problems for children.
Outside detention, only a handful of unaccompanied children have the assistance they are entitled to by international law. There are places in privately-run shelters for perhaps 140 children at any time. Others live on the street or in crowded private accommodations with other migrants, at risk of exploitation, destitution, and re-arrest, as they don’t have papers allowing them to be in the country. Given this toxic limbo, it’s no wonder that many children make the desperate decision to get on smugglers’ boats to Australia.
Assisting unaccompanied migrant children isn’t just the law, it’s also the right thing to do. It is relatively inexpensive to assist these children—even though their numbers are growing, the total remains quite small. Indonesia should immediately stop locking up unaccompanied migrant children, and resolve which ministry will take on guardianship responsibilities—the Ministry of Social Affairs, perhaps. With guardianship in place, the government should offer children basic shelter, food, and legal assistance. These children deserve the same care Indonesians would like to see for their own children abroad.
Andreas Harsono is a Jakarta-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.