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Indonesia/Australia: Protect 'boat children'

Human Rights Watch Statement - September 10, 2012

Far too many children take incredibly risky journeys because they face no good choices. They can't go home because of persecution or war, and they can't stay put, because Indonesia doesn't assist with basic needs or address their legal status. Zama Coursen-Neff, children's rights director

Jakarta The Australian and Indonesian governments should urgently take effective measures to protect migrant children at high risk of abuse while in Indonesia en route to Australia, Human Rights Watch said today.

The sinking on August 29, 2012, of an unseaworthy boat filled with migrant families heading to Australia highlights the need for better protection for migrant children from outside Indonesia, Human Rights Watch said. Media reports indicate that children were among the more than 100 fatalities from the incident in Indonesia's Sunda Strait.

"Far too many children take incredibly risky journeys because they face no good choices," said Zama Coursen-Neff, children's rights director at Human Rights Watch. "They can't go home because of persecution or war, and they can't stay put, because Indonesia doesn't assist with basic needs or address their legal status."

A 10-year-old Afghan boy, Omed Jafari, was among those rescued in last week's boat sinking. He was badly sunburned and dehydrated, and news reports indicate he lost his father and other relatives in the incident. Mangamed Tamin Satiawan, the head of the immigration office in Indonesia's Merak district, said Omed's case would be expedited "because his case is special. He's just a kid." But his case highlights the need for special attention to all cases involving migrant children, Human Rights Watch said.

Recent Human Rights Watch research in Indonesia found that hundreds of migrant children, especially unaccompanied children, from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Burma, and elsewhere, face detention, mistreatment in custody, no access to education, and little or no basic assistance in Indonesia. The Indonesian government does not provide them or their families opportunities to obtain legal status, such as to seek asylum. Many migrants consider traveling to Australia on boats arranged by smugglers a viable option, despite the dangers.

Unaccompanied migrant children those who travel without their parents or other caregivers have to make these decisions without guidance. Arief B., an ethnic Hazara from Afghanistan, was 15 years old when he traveled to Indonesia alone with the goal of finding safety in Australia. Arief's boat went into distress and for three days before he was rescued, he watched many of his fellow passengers drown.

"Now, I am afraid of the water," Arief told Human Rights Watch. "For three days and nights, no water and food. We kept climbing higher and higher as the boat was sinking."

After Arief was rescued, the Indonesian authorities took him to a detention center, where for three months he was kept with unrelated adults. He had no access to education or to legal assistance. Guards beat him for trying to escape.

There are at least 150 unaccompanied migrant children recognized by the United Nations refugee agency in Indonesia, and many more who have not received any recognition, legal or otherwise, by the authorities. None of these children receives adequate protection, such as guardianship, legal assistance, or documentation from Indonesia. Many contemplate or undertake dangerous boat journeys to escape the hardship.

"Unaccompanied migrant children attempting to transit Indonesia en route to Australia too often fall into a legal black hole in which their rights are denied and their health and physical safety are put at risk," Coursen-Neff said.

Human Rights Watch interviewed both unaccompanied migrant children and children who traveled to Indonesia with their families. Many families like Omed's also find themselves deciding to risk the boat journey to Australia, arranging with smugglers for passage from Jakarta, Kupang, Banjarmasin, and other parts of the Indonesian archipelago.

Indonesian authorities frequently detain undocumented migrants, including unaccompanied children and children in families, for months or years in squalid conditions without access to education or in some cases outdoor recreation. There are large immigration detention facilities in Jakarta, Pontianak, Tanjung Pinang, Belawan, and elsewhere in Indonesia.

Restrictive immigration policies in Indonesia and in Australia facilitate the conditions in which families with children and unaccompanied children will take these risks, Human Rights Watch said.

The Australian government has a resettlement scheme in place for some migrants in Indonesia who are recognized as refugees by the UN refugee agency. However, this process can take years, during which time migrants remain in detention or live without work authorization or, in some cases, any legal documents, in Indonesia.

One Afghan father told Human Rights Watch of his experience in Indonesia: "After eight or nine months you are called for an interview, and then there's more time to wait for the result. It's taking years, and people's families are back home, needing money. At least on the boats, you know your fate in 36 hours, in 24 hours."

Indonesia has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, and provides no formal protection for children who are seeking asylum. Under its obligations as party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it may only detain children in very limited circumstances, and is obligated to provide all children with education and not discriminate among children based on migration status.

"The ongoing discussions between Indonesia and Australia to improve cooperation on search-and-rescue operations for ships at sea are important, but more needs to be done," Coursen-Neff said. "Australia should expedite its resettlement process. Indonesia needs to stop detaining migrant children and create mechanisms giving them access to education and addressing legal status."

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