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Unaccompanied Young Asylum-Seekers Stuck in Transit in Indonesia: Intimate Relationships and Resilience

Antje Missbach and Danau Tanu


Ahmed arrived in Indonesia when he was 17 years old.1 He is one of many hundreds of unaccompanied Hazara minors who have gone to Indonesia without their parents in the hopes of finding protection and resettlement in a third country (Antaranews 2014). Hazara are Shia Muslims who face persecution from Sunni Muslims in Afghanistan. Prior to making the journey to Indonesia, many young Hazara spend much of their childhood and youth in Iran or Pakistan, where they go with their families to escape the Taliban regime. Many accounts state that the parents of unaccompanied minors intentionally send their children on a journey to seek

1 A pseudonym has been used to protect his identity.

A. Missbach (*)

Department of Anthropology, Monash University, Melbourne, Vic, Australia D. Tanu

School of Social Sciences, University of Western Australia, Perth, WA, Australia

© The Author(s) 2016

M.O. Ensor, E.M. Gozdziak (eds.), Children and Forced Migration, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40691-6_13

asylum in Europe or Australia, hoping that they will receive more lenient treatment or even certain privileges not available to adult asylum-seekers (Crock 2005). Unaccompanied minors hope to avoid not only deportation but also to resettle in a third country more rapidly than adults, which in turn may allow for family reunification. Many of these reports view the motivations of young asylum-seekers and their families as opportunistic (Mougne 2010). Yet, his departure was not quite as voluntary as it often is presumed.

Ahmed, an ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan, had lived in Iran since he was eight years old with his mother and his three siblings. They moved to Iran after his father passed away. Early in their stay in Iran, Ahmed recalls: “Life there was good, I could even go to school, but I also had to work. Later on, our school got closed. People like us [Hazara] always stand out in Iran, and we face many problems.” Ahmed recounted his forced departure from Iran to Indonesia without his family:

One day I wanted to visit my friend to play computer games at his house. On the way to his house, the police stopped me. Since I had no identity card I was arrested and taken to their office. Without notification, I was sent to the Iran—Afghan border together with many other people. We arrived there at the middle of the night, and I had no idea where to go after the police released us. Luckily an older man took me to Herat [an Afghan town situated close to the border with Iran]. From there I could call my mother and tell her what had happened. She cried when she heard what had happened.

My immediate wish was to return to my family, but my mother advised me otherwise. She thought it would be too difficult to come back into [sic] Iran. She feared for my life. She advised me to go to Kabul and wait there until she had gathered enough money to send to me. She suggested I go to Indonesia, even though we knew that there were no more boats leaving for Australia from there. But from all the available options, Indonesia appeared the safest.

Once my mother had transferred US$6000, which she borrowed from various friends, I started my journey, which took me through India and Malaysia. From there, I crossed over to Indonesia by boat.

At the time of interview, Ahmed had already been in Indonesia for 11 months and was living in a privately run orphanage for Indonesian street children. He was a few months shy of turning 18 and was still awaiting his first interview with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative that would start the process of determining his refugee status.

This chapter highlights the experiences of unaccompanied minors and young asylum-seekers, like Ahmed, during their time of prolonged involuntary transit in Indonesia, which often lasts much longer than anticipated. Unaccompanied young asylum-seekers (UYAS) are commonly “stuck” in Indonesia for at least two years without parents or family. The insecurity regarding their future as asylum-seekers makes transit even more difficult to bear. For most of the transit period, migrants are uncertain whether their claims for protection will be recognized or rejected—the difference between being given a chance of resettlement in a safe third country or being left with no options other than accepting voluntary repatriation to their country of origin or the last point of departure. Although confronted with this state of insecurity, asylum- seekers face endless boredom; they are prohibited by law from working. The longer asylum-seekers remain in transit, the more precarious their economic situation becomes, as transfers of funds usually dry up and they regularly encounter intimidation and extortion by the police and others (Missbach 2015).

While in transit, asylum-seekers forge social relations with fellow asylum-seekers, as well as locals, but these relationships have rarely been discussed in the literature. This chapter examines the vulnerability of young asylum-seekers under the restrictive structures imposed on their lives by international and local actors in Indonesia, and the social relations that these conditions engender. Age and the precarious conditions of young asylum-seekers in transit intersect with their need for friendship and intimate interactions. In particular, this chapter contextualizes the intimate relations young male asylum-seekers form with older, local women within international child protection regimes, as well as the local cultural perceptions of these relationships.

Most migrant and refugee studies are adult-centric and have not specifically explored the experiences of UYAS in transit. In contrast, this chapter directs special attention to unaccompanied minors and youth (e.g., Ahmed). They face particular challenges during their journeys that are specific to young people and their official categorization as minors. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as a “human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier” (United Nations 1990). Unaccompanied asylum-seekers who are minors are those under the age of 18 who travel outside their home countries without their parents or other legal guardians (Crock 2005, 120-121). Age, however, is often an uncertain category. Some young asylum-seekers might not know their exact date of birth; others over 18 might pretend to be under 18 to gain access to certain privileges.

Even though minors may be biologically immature, the concept of childhood is a social construction that “appears as a specific structural and cultural component” of the societies in which they live (Prout and James 2003, 8). Adhering strictly to age categorization might help determine who is a minor or young unaccompanied asylum-seeker, but it does not help in fully understanding their experiences, which need to be contextualized within the unusual circumstances of their lives in transit. To allow for more flexibility in the discussions here, the cohort of interest in this research is referred to as “unaccompanied young asylum-seekers” (UYAS).[1]

The UYAS are seen as the most vulnerable among asylum-seekers and “passive victims of exploitation, reflecting dominant notions of trauma and victimhood” (Ensor and Gozdziak 2010, 1). Scholars suggest that UYAS are at greater risk of becoming victims of trafficking and exploitation than adult asylum-seekers (Derluyn and Broekaert 2005, 2007).

UYAS face potential manipulation when entering into intimate relationships with adults, not only because of their youth and inexperience but also because of their status as asylum-seekers, under which they lack the privileges enjoyed by citizens of their country of transit (e.g., Indonesia). Much of the existing research frames the experiences of young asylum- seekers solely as (potential) victims, resulting in policies designed to protect them. Yet, such policies fail to recognize the complexity of being an UYAS in transit. Children and youth do not merely experience the structures imposed on them as “passive subjects.” Rather, they are “active in the construction and determination of their own social lives” and the world around them (Prout and James 2003, 8). In fact, the policies’ strict adherence to age categorizations can unintentionally exacerbate the precarious conditions that UYAS face rather than leading to beneficial solutions.

This chapter explores the intimate relationships that some UYAS form with older, local women in the context of their legal and socioeconomic insecurity in Indonesia. The nature of these intimate relationships brings to the fore aspects of UYAS’s precarious and vulnerable lives that have hitherto been less obvious. To view these intimate relationships simply as examples of the victimization of unaccompanied young asylum-seekers is problematic. Stories from the field also reveal resilience and pragmatism, which are often overlooked, among UYAS in the unfavorable conditions they face.

The text is divided into three parts. It begins with detailed insights into life in Indonesia for unaccompanied minors and separated children in Section 2. It then presents cases of intimate relationships between UYAS and older Indonesian women. The issues of exploitation and resilience occurring in these often rather pragmatic relationships are discussed in Section 3 before, finally in Section 4, considering whether Western models of childhood are appropriate in determining strategies for dealing with UYAS and their accommodation. This chapter seeks to explore, rather than assumes, age-related vulnerability and coping strategies in the context of irregular migration. Its findings suggest that the legal and socioeconomic structures that limit asylum-seekers’ interaction with their host society shapes the nature of social relationships they form in transit, particularly intimate ones.

The ethnographic fieldwork for this chapter was carried out over more than 17 months in Indonesia, mostly West Java and Jakarta, by the chapter’s first author between 2011 and 2015. The early informationgathering focused on the living conditions of transiting asylum-seekers of all age groups in Indonesia rather than just UYAS. It became obvious from the outset, however, that the way UYAS experience transit conditions different from other asylum-seekers, especially those with families. Unlike older asylum-seekers, UYAS spoke better English and were faster at learning Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian), making it easier to communicate with them. Fieldwork involved informal group interviews with UYAS over dinners they had prepared in their shelters and informal chats and participant observations during badminton sessions and other activities.

  • [1] Even though doubts about a person’s age may have been reasonable in some cases, if a person hadbeen accepted by the UNHCR in Jakarta as an unaccompanied minor, we too have accepted theclassification. It was not uncommon for UNHCR staff to hold doubts about the exact age of some UYAS andto make jokes about “grey-haired” or “bearded minors,” as they were often given the benefit of thedoubt. Most field officers preferred to grant special benefits to one unaccompanied minor toomany, rather than one too few. However, given the current increase in the numbers of UYAS andthe shortage of places to accommodate them, this could mean that some minor asylum-seekers,such as Ahmed, do not receive their entitlements.
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