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Life and death in immigration detention

Inside Indonesia - July-September 2013

Antje Missbach and Frieda Sinanu On 28 February 2012, Taqi Nekoyee, a young man from Afghanistan died in the Pontianak immigration detention centre in Kalimantan. Taqi's autopsy revealed massive wounds and cigarette burns indications of severe beating and torture. Taqi arrived in Indonesia in mid-2011 and applied for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), hoping to be resettled to a safe third country. In early November 2011, while his claim was being processed, he breached the strict travel restrictions that apply to those seeking asylum and was arrested and held in custody in the Pontianak immigration detention centre. Two days before his death, Taqi escaped with five other Afghanis. The following day, the police re-captured Taqi and two others. The report filed on their return stated that the detainees were in good health. It appears that in the following hours the security guards tormented the escapees and eventually caused Taqi's death.

When the public became aware of the incident the Directorate-General of Immigration started an investigation. Ten guards who were on shift were taken into police custody. Masni Eriza, Deputy Director of Humanitarian Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented that 'it is not relevant whether the victims are asylum seekers or from Afghanistan. Because in the eyes of the Indonesian law a crime has been committed.' The perpetrators were tried for severe maltreatment causing death, a charge that attracts a maximum sentence of seven years. But despite the Indonesian government's stated commitment to upholding justice, the prosecution only sought a one year sentence. Ultimately the security guards who caused Taqi's death were sentenced to just ten months imprisonment. Having already served their time, the officers have now been reemployed by the Immigration Department.

Although Taqi was the first asylum seeker whose death in custody has become public in Indonesia, Amnesty International reports that mistreatment by law enforcement officials in immigration detention is widespread. Many of the former detainees we interviewed accused the immigration service and the Indonesian police of discrimination, violence, extortion and theft. Police officers and detention guards also complain about asylum seekers using violence against them, especially during arrests and attempted break-outs. The police reports of Taqi's murder claimed the guards' brutal acts were motivated by their ongoing frustration with detainees, who continually complain and attempt to escape. It appears that a vicious cycle of mistrust, vengeance and bitterness is now exacerbating Indonesia's difficulties in managing asylum seekers.

Officially this problem doesn't exist. The Indonesian immigration department has a standard operating procedure for the management of its detention centres. Released in 2011, the human rights guidebook for officers emphasises the importance of protecting detainees' rights. This guidebook and associated training are part of a series of collaborative activities between the immigration authorities and the intergovernmental International Organisation on Migration (IOM). As part of this collaboration, thousands of immigration officers throughout Indonesia have received human rights training since 2007.

But these initiatives are yet to substantively improve the protection of detainees. In April 2013, a three-hour brawl between Muslim and Buddhist detainees in Belawan detention centre ended in the death of eight detainees from Myanmar. The police investigation indicated that a group of Rohingya men attacked male Buddhists in retaliation for alleged sexual harassments towards Rohingya women refugees. The detention centre was understaffed at the time, so the guards present refrained from intervening. The local police are currently processing the murder case with 18 Rohingya refugees identified as suspects. If found guilty, these men could receive up to twelve years in prison. We are unaware of any disciplinary action being taken against negligent detention centre staff.

Politics of detention

Transiting asylum seekers like Taqi are the largest group of persons detained by the Indonesian immigration service. As a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, Indonesia is neither willing nor obliged to assume responsibility for protecting asylum seekers and refugees. However, the Indonesian government does allow people to stay in Indonesia while waiting for the UNHCR to process their claims.

Normally once the UNHCR grants asylum seekers refugee status, they are released and allowed to live in specially allocated local communities while they await resettlement to a third country. But the UNHCR application process does not adhere to a fixed timeframe. The UNHCR in Indonesia is notoriously understaffed and the refugee determination process normally takes at least one year. Detainees in remote detention centres often have to wait several months for just their initial interview by a UNHCR staff member. And in many cases, even people who have been granted refugee status remain in detention, if they are unable to pay the bribes which are usually demanded by detention staff before they will release them.

The Indonesian Immigration Law of 2011 provides asylum seekers and refugees who already hold UNHCR documents with special status. They are exempted from arrest, provided they comply with strict regulations governing their conduct. The majority of asylum seekers who end up in detention are those who do not have UNHCR documents at all. But documented asylum seekers can still be arrested and detained if they attempt to exit Indonesia 'irregularly'. Indeed, many of the detained asylum seekers were apprehended while trying to leave Indonesia for Australia by boat.

The detainment of asylum seekers is an initiative designed to discourage asylum seekers from subverting the UNHCR settlement process. In the past, Indonesia only maintained quarantine centres for foreigners on trial for crimes and overstayers waiting deportation. But recent political pressure and financial incentives from other countries especially Australia have led to the expansion of the immigration detention network. Prolonged detainment of asylum seekers was legalised under the 2011 Immigration Law, which allows detainment for up to 10 years without trial. Indonesia's detention centres now act as another barrier for asylum seekers trying to reach safe grounds, most often in Australia. Yet Indonesia would probably not have tightened its grip on asylum seekers in this way without the heavy incentives from the international community.

Life in detention

Currently there are 13 immigration detention centres scattered throughout Indonesia. The central detention centre is located in Tanjung Pinang in the Riau Archipelago province. The rest of the centres are spread throughout Medan, Pekanbaru, Jakarta, Semarang, Surabaya, Denpasar, Kupang, Balikpapan, Pontianak, Makassar, Manado and Jayapura Some centres hold only men, others also house women, families and unaccompanied minors.

Although some detention centres have been renovated, they are generally crowded and unhygienic. At one point during 2010, for example, the detention centre in Kupang hosted 240 detainees, although its official capacity is only 80. Immigration officers had to establish makeshift tents in the detention grounds and converted some offices into rooms to accommodate women and children. This problem is ongoing and widespread. The Deputy Law and Human Rights Minister, Denny Indrayana, recently noted that a detention centre in Medan with a capacity for 50 people was housing 480 in April this year.

Living conditions in the detention centres are generally very poor. IOM allocates Rp. 45,000 (A$4.5) per detainee per day for food and accommodation, but detainees claim the detention staff often embezzle their meal funds. Many of the detainees suffer from skin diseases, gastroenteritis and depression, for which there is inadequate medical care. A former detainee who spent almost four months in the detention centre in Jakarta described it as 'the worst place on earth'. That this account came from a refugee fleeing a war zone is no small irony.

While similar conditions exist in many prisons in the country (see the article by Tim Mann in this edition), in some ways the situation is worse for asylum seekers. By the time they arrive in Indonesia they are already traumatised by persecution and the horrors of war in their homelands. In detention they are exposed to extortion and violence, problems that are exacerbated by language and cultural barriers. While both Indonesian prisoners and detainees have a right to access legal assistance, it is difficult for detainees to access their legal rights. The head of the detention centres, in violation of regulations, only allows lawyers to see their clients if they first obtain permission from the central government. And unlike Indonesian detainees, asylum seekers have committed no crime.

In this context it is little wonder that breakouts from detention centres, such as the one which precipitated Taqi's violent death, are common. Anecdotal evidence from a number of detention centres we visited indicates detention guards are often bribed to assist such escapes. For example, in 2009 detainees from Kupang found their way out after the guards 'forgot' to lock a door. While collaboration is common, it is normally better disguised, since detention guards can suffer salary cuts and non-promotion if detainees escape on their watch.

A better future?

Although immigration detention is not intended to be a form of punishment, the uncertainty over the length of detention means that it is, in effect, a form of arbitrary imprisonment. The poor condition and maltreatment of asylum seekers in detention centres demonstrates a lack of commitment from the Indonesian authorities to uphold their own regulations, even with incentives from the international community.

If Indonesia wants to detain asylum seekers, its authorities should at the very least make serious efforts to ensure that detainees' rights are protected, according to its own human rights guidelines. In the end, protecting asylum seekers' human rights could also mean not keeping them in detention. After all, seeking asylum is not illegal and asylum seekers are not criminals.

Antje Missbach (antje.missbach@unimelb.edu.au) is a McKenzie postdoctoral fellow at the University of Melbourne. Frieda Sinanu (frieda.sinanu@gmail.com) is a consultant for development programs in Indonesia. Antje and Frieda are currently researching the situation of transit migrants in Indonesia.

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