Barely surviving: detention, abuse, and neglect of migrant children in Indonesia

Children Immigration Indonesia

This report details Indonesia’s poor treatment of migrant and asylum-seeking children.

Indonesia detains hundreds of migrant and asylum-seeking children each year without giving them a way to challenge their detention. They are kept in sordid conditions, without access to lawyers, and sometimes beaten. Others are left to fend for themselves, without any assistance with food or shelter. Indonesian law permits up to 10 years of immigration detention. They arrive in Indonesia after fleeing persecution, violence, and poverty in Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, and elsewhere.

Unaccompanied migrant children – who travel without parents or other adults to protect them – fall into a legal void. With no government agency responsible for their guardianship, no one responds to their needs. Some children languish in detention, while others are left on the streets, without the legal or material assistance to which they are entitled by law.

Without a viable future, many migrant children – either alone or with their families – risk their lives on dangerous boat journeys to Australia. They typically board rickety boats organized by smugglers without adequate fuel; hundreds are thought to die on this crossing each year.

For this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 102 migrants between the ages of 5 and 66. 42 of our interviewees were children when they entered Indonesia. Human Rights Watch researchers met a number of government officials concerned with migration, and interviewed staff members of nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations. Both adults and children described guards kicking, punching, and slapping them or other detainees. Some reported that guards tied up or gagged detainees, beat them with sticks, burned them with cigarettes, and administered electric shocks. In one case, parents said immigration guards forced their children, including their 4-year-old and 6-year-old, to watch guards beat other migrants. Several unaccompanied boys told Human Rights Watch that Indonesian immigration guards beat them in detention.

Detention conditions fall far short of international standards: Centers are often overcrowded, unsanitary, and occasionally flooded. Children have next to no access to education and inadequate recreation time. Some children said they do not see sunlight for weeks at a time. More than 1,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Indonesia in 2012. Many were detained with unrelated adults, at even greater risk of the violence and abuse that characterizes Indonesian immigration detention facilities.

Almost 2,000 asylum-seeking and refugee children were in Indonesia as of March 2013, a number that has gone up each of the last five years. Indonesia has no asylum law and delegates its responsibility to determine who must be protected as a refugee to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Yet even when UNHCR recognizes people as refugees, Indonesia often refuses to release them from detention, and does not recognize them as having any legal right to be in the country. Even if released, refugees and asylum seekers, including children, face constant threat of re-arrest and further detention. Asylum seekers and refugees who are released cannot legally work or move freely around the country. Children have few prospects for gaining an education. Many wait months or years for UNHCR to process their cases. Only a small number are ultimately resettled to a third country.

The Indonesian government should stop detaining migrant children, clean up its detention facilities, and institute fair, thorough processing for asylum seekers.

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