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Unaccompanied Young Asylum-Seekers in Indonesia

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) explicitly states the “best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” (United Nations 1990). Yet, in the case of Indonesia, a party to the CRC, there are many contradictions between domestic policies and international law in determining what is in the best interests of a child. Indonesia has not endorsed the Refugee Convention, but it has signed other relevant International Human Rights Conventions. Thus, as an important transit country in Southeast Asia, Indonesia has certain responsibilities for protecting underage asylum-seekers. So far, Indonesia has been reluctant to assume its responsibilities, instead delegating much of the care of asylum-seekers to the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The majority of UYAS currently in Indonesia are boys aged 13-18 (or slightly older). Most are Hazara youth from Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan; occasionally, there are also Uzbeks, Tadjiks, or even Somali minors. Although they had traveled to Indonesia on their own or in small groups arranged by smugglers, most boys were not complete orphans, but often had lost one of their parents. In particular, Hazara boys from

Quetta (Pakistan) mentioned that the violent deaths or targeted killings of their fathers or older brothers had triggered their sudden departure from home (Suprobo 2014). According to press reports, targeted killings are often directed against male heads of households, the most important provider, to cause maximum damage to the entire family. Although it is not possible to verify the details of statements made by the Hazara boys, the ultimate truth about specific family constellations is of negligible importance because the situation for the Hazara in Iran and Pakistan, and in most parts of Afghanistan, has remained dangerous (Human Rights Watch 2014).

Even after reaching Indonesia, finding safe refuge is not a straightforward process for the UYAS. Ahmed related the journey he took after arriving in Medan, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, from Malaysia:

The smuggler had prepared a ticket from Medan to Jakarta [where the UNHCR office is]. Once I arrived at the airport in Jakarta, his service ceased and I was on my own. I had no idea what to do. I stood around at the airport for hours, until finally I heard some other Farsi speakers. Obviously they had come here for similar reasons. I approached them for help and they suggested we take a taxi together to Puncak [approx. 60 km from the Jakarta airport], a place that had been recommended to them by their smuggler.

On our way to Puncak, the police stopped us. The officers demanded US$400 per person in order to grant passage. I had only US$150 in my pockets. I was very scared, but luckily one of the other passengers managed to bargain with the police. In the end, I gave them US$100.

Once we arrived in Puncak, I was invited to stay in a house where a dozen other Hazaras where staying. Some of them had been there for several months. My remaining US$50 was gone after only 10 days. As I could not contribute anything to the household, my housemates stopped treating me nicely. In the end I was asked to leave. With nowhere to go, I ended up in Jakarta. I slept in front of the UNHCR office for about a month. I lived off donations from other people. Some days I ate only once, other days I ate five times. Later on somebody told me about a Shia mosque, where I spent my nights for about two months.

Eventually the staff members from the UNHCR took notice of me. As all the shelters for unaccompanied minors were taken up, I was sent to an orphanage, where 12 Indonesian street kids lived. Although it was sup?posed to be only temporary, I stayed there for many months. After a couple of months, I met an older lady, who promised to help me. She said she could find me an Indonesian foster family. And she did. I stayed with that family for some weeks, until they got tired of me too, as I am almost always depressed. I am still friends with that lady and she helps me a lot.

However, with no place to go, I returned to the orphanage even though this place is tiny and dirty. I do not fit in here and I do not speak enough Indonesian to communicate with the other children, who are also much younger. Soon, I will be 18, which means that my stay here also comes to an end. Now [February 2015] I am still waiting for my first interview by the UNHCR [in order to start the refugee determination process].

Ahmed’s story is representative of the precarious living arrangements and economic means that UYAS face while in transit in Indonesia.

As of March 31, 2015, 7135 asylum-seekers (1634 women and 5501 men) and 4806 refugees (1098 women and 3708 men) were registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia. A total of 3196 children were registered, including 903 unaccompanied children (751 asylum-seekers and 152 refugees), mainly from Afghanistan but also from Somalia and Myanmar.[1] Some 572 children were held in immigration detention centers, even though children and UYAS should be exempt from detention, according to the UNHCR recommendations (UNHCR 2012, 34-36). Although 29 lived in community accommodation centers, 237 lived independently and 65 in shelters (UNHCR, March 2015).

As is widely reported, conditions in immigration detention areas in Indonesia are deplorable and particularly damaging for children (Human Rights Watch 2013). Despite the awful conditions, many minors voluntarily “surrender” to the Indonesian authorities in order to be detained, especially if they have run out of resources.[2] The UNHCR and the IOM have been working with the Indonesian government to move children who have been identified by the UNHCR as refugees and asylum-seekers from immigration detention centers to government-run shelters and to provide alternative accommodations for families with children (IOM Indonesia 2014b).

Moreover, Church World Service (CWS), the local partner organization of the UNHCR, has established shelters to accommodate UYAS until they turn 18. Three of these shelters were located in Puncak until 2013, about 60 km from Jakarta, but they had to be relocated following complaints and threats from the local population. Currently, two new shelters, accommodating about 120 UYAS, are located on the outskirts of Jakarta. Those who stay at these shelters are provided with a roof over their heads, basic medical care, and also enjoy some educational activities, although none of them attend school regularly. They are paid a small amount of money (US$15) a week to cover costs (e.g., food). Rules in the shelters have become more restrictive in recent years and failure to comply with them may result in expulsion.

By Western standards the conditions in these shelters are far from ideal, but by Indonesian standards they are above average. They are also significantly better than immigration detention centers, in which some inmates have to sleep on the floor in corridors and have no freedom of movement. Considering the UYAS population in Indonesia, the capacity of these special shelters is insufficient to meet the growing demand. Newly arrived asylum-seekers depend on friends and acquaintances for their accommodations. Often young men rent cheap rooms in Jakarta, which are known as dosshouses. Some minors are left without special assistance and the trend for asylum-seekers, including children, to sleep outside the UNHCR office in Jakarta has been growing.

Adult refugees (and sometimes asylum-seekers) under the care of the IOM receive free housing and a monthly stipend of US$120 per person. This is substantially higher than the US$60 monthly cash allowance received by UYAS, some of whom are accommodated in shelters, under the UNHCR. Still, asylum-seekers usually have to undergo immigration detention before the Indonesian immigration authorities will transfer them to IOM care. Asylum-seekers cannot apply directly for the IOM services. Moreover, substantial bribes often are required to speed up the Indonesian immigration authorities’ processes, making it very difficult for UYAS who have already run out of money.

Unaccompanied minors in Indonesia are eligible to go through the refugee determination process and apply for international protection. But then again, the process is more difficult for UYAS than adults. Many adults face substantial difficulties navigating the bureaucratic processes of providing detailed evidence of their need for protection. Mary Crock (2013, 39) observed of the UYAS in Australia that “children presenting as primary [asylum] applicants do not fare as well. They suffer from both their inferior position in a created hierarchy of rights and in their characterisation as pawns in an adult game where the immigration objectives of the adults are the main concern.” Given that there is no legal aid or advocacy available for asylum-seekers in Indonesia in general, UYAS without a legal guardian face even more substantial obstacles in dealing with the international protection regime.

Instead of offering legal aid, the UNHCR and the IOM, acting as the responsible caregivers, offer so-called voluntary return. Although refugee recognition rates in Indonesia are high, the process of status determination is time-consuming, taking on average between 34 and 47 months (JRS 2012, 34). Once an UYAS has been granted refugee status, he or she can then apply for resettlement to a safe third country, as permanent integration into Indonesia is not an option. While they wait for resettlement, all refugees must sign a letter of compliance, in which they agree to adhere to Indonesian law.

Although UYAS are given some special care, compared to adult asylum-seekers, while in transit, their age is often a disadvantage in the resettlement process. Australia, for example, does not accept refugees under the age of 18 for resettlement from Indonesia. Consequently, recognized refugees under the age of 18 in Indonesia only can apply for resettlement in the USA and other countries that accept much smaller annual contingents of refugees from Indonesia (UNHCR, December 2014a). Australia claims that its refusal to accept unaccompanied minors stems from its efforts to discourage parents from sending their children on a dangerous journey to Australia. But more important, Australia does not want unaccompanied minors “to act as an anchor” for their families’ subsequent migration to there (O’Brien 2013).

Consequently, it was not surprising that before the implementation of Operation Sovereign Borders in September 2013, many unaccompanied minors decided to bypass the formal bureaucratic route in place in Indonesia and take the passage to Australia by boat in order to speed up the resettlement process. To a certain extent the shelters that provided them with a safe place were also places to find information on smugglers, prices, and routes to Australia. Their chances of resettlement from Indonesia to Australia since have been further reduced. On November 19, 2014, the Australian government announced its decision to stop the resettlement of any refugees who had registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia on or after the July 1, 2014 (ABC 2014).

It is within these structural constraints that the UYAS have forged social relationships with local Indonesians. Left without family support, with limited economic resources, and legal limitations on their everyday activities, it has not been uncommon for male UYAS to form intimate relationships with older Indonesian women during their prolonged transit. These relationships are the focus of the following section.

  • [1] The number of children among the asylum-seeker population in Indonesia in late 2014 hadincreased by 43 % from the figure of 2178 at the end of 2013 (UNHCR, November 2014b).
  • [2] Interview with three young Afghans, February 2015, Bogor.
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