TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - There must never again be Indonesian children suffering in Australian adult jails. Hundreds of Indonesian youngsters suspected of involvement in people smuggling to Australia between 2008 and 2013 underwent unsatisfactory legal proceedings. They were imprisoned in maximum security jails where some of them were sexually abused.
During that period, thousands of people from Afghanistan and countries in the Middle East passed through Indonesia on their way to their final destination of Australia. According to the UNHCR, in 2010, 12,640 people sought asylum in Australia. In 2011, the figure was 11,510. Over the next few years, the number rose sharply.
In order to stop this wave of people, Australia tightened monitoring of its borders. And this is where profiteers stepped in, providing transport "services" for asylum seekers.
This bleak story began with poverty. Underage children were forced to work on fishing boats, as dock laborers or as crew on ships to stay alive. When refugees from conflict nations began to flock to Australia through Indonesian waters to seek asylum, the lives of these children became even harder. They were tempted by high wages offered by ship captains to transport illegal immigrants to Australia.
They had to run serious risks: death from being pounded by waves or arrest by Australian security forces. In several cases, these unfortunate children were taken advantage of by ships captains who fled before the boats reached Australia. Children paid a few millions of rupiah were "forced" to become captains to take the refugees to their destination. In Australia, the children and refugees were welcomed by armed border guards.
Most of these Indonesian children are from cities on the asylum-seekers’ route, including Rote Island; Muara Angke, North Jakarta; Alor, Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara; Batam; Cirebon, West Java and Cilacap, Central Java. According to the Foreign Ministry, 274 children were detained for people smuggling. But the Australian parliament says that the far larger total of 1,600 children were involved with people smuggling between 2008 and 2012.
Even worse was to come for these children when they were prosecuted. The Australian authorities treated them as adult detainees. They did not receive adequate legal protection from the Indonesian government, and it was Australian activists who defended them. An investigative team from this magazine interviewed a number of people who experienced maltreatment in Australian jails. Some of them were still so traumatized that they have been unable to tell their families what happened to them.
These bleak accounts of children in Australian jails also show the dark side of our diplomacy. Officials at the Indonesian Consulate in Perth at the time ignored their duty to protect Indonesian citizens, which should have been their main responsibility. The consul general simply accepted the word of the Australian authorities that the children were adults, and should, therefore, be punished according to Australian law. They should have tried their best to gather data on the detainees to prove that the opposite was true.
The division of responsibility to provide assistance and protection for Indonesian citizens is a common weakness of Indonesian diplomatic missions overseas. Several Indonesian workers have even been executed without the knowledge of diplomats. At the beginning of this year, Saudi Arabia executed Zaini Misrin, a man from Madura accused of murdering his employer, without notifying the Indonesian government in advance. Indonesian diplomatic missions are often caught off guard and fail to provide the necessary protection for their citizens.
The treatment of children by the Australian authorities was also improper. Using wrist X-rays to decide whether an individual was a child or adult was inconsiderate. There were no other efforts made to determine the age of detainees. Such arbitrary methods have a long-term impact on children, especially psychological problems. Therefore, the efforts by a number of Australian advocates to demand the government provide compensation to the children should be applauded.
The Foreign Ministry should support this move by supplying the necessary data. It is the least they can do to make up for their past shortcomings.