Australia’s military-led operation to prevent boats carrying asylum seekers from reaching its shores has been hailed by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott as a success. But in Indonesia - the country from which most of the boats previously departed - Australia’s tough new measures have stranded thousands of asylum seekers and refugees who can neither proceed to their desired destination nor, in many cases, return home. Australia’s Operation Sovereign Borders intercepted refugee boats which were either towed back into Indonesian waters and handed over to the Indonesian Navy or taken to one of Australia’s offshore detention centres where conditions have been described by human rights organizations as “inhumane”. Attempts to reach Australia by boat have now largely been abandoned. Now that sea routes out of the country have been closed off, the only way to move on from Indonesia is through deportation or voluntary return for those who do not qualify for refugee status, and voluntary repatriation or resettlement for those that do.
According to UNHCR, about 5 percent of the registered refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia are so-called unaccompanied minors - children who have made often long and perilous journeys without a parent or guardian to care for them. Indonesian law makes no provision for such children and although the country has ratified the UN Convention on Rights of the Child, which obliges it to assign guardians to unaccompanied children, it has not done so.
14,000 asylum seekers and refugees now stranded in Indonesia. Indonesian is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. With no right to work and little support available from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, many new arrivals simply hand themselves over to the Indonesian authorities knowing that at least they’ll be fed and sheltered while they’re detained. Indonesia’s 13 detention facilities are now bursting at the seams. According to the Global Detention Project, 2,806 asylum seekers are currently in immigration detention, many of them unaccompanied minors living in conditions that are often overcrowded and that Human Rights Watch has described as "appalling". Indonesia shows little sign of changing its policy of not recognising or integrating refugees. According to Antje Missbach, a researcher based at Monash University in Melbourne, “They have their own internally displaced people, high unemployment and many people living below the poverty line – that has always been their stance.”
UNCHR Indonesia representative Manuel Jordao explains “Detention is a big problem here; there’s an abusive use of that policy. The IDCs are not the best in the world - they’re understaffed, overcrowded, staff lack training and regimes vary enormously from one IDC to another… Length of detention also can be very long.” Most asylum seekers are detained until their refugee status determination has been completed, a process that takes 12-16 months, according to Jordao who acknowledged that in areas where UNHCR has few or no staff, the wait may be longer. Families, women and children are not exempt and often spend months in detention. UNHCR grants refugee status in about 75 to 85 percent of cases in Indonesia.
A Human Rights Watch report alleges that an Afghan migrant died after he was severely beaten by guards at an immigration detention centre in Pontianak in 2012 following an escape attempt. Three other asylum seekers who had tried to escape with him were also hospitalized, including a 17-year-old unaccompanied minor Ten employees at the centre subsequently received 10-month prison sentences for assault, but the report notes, “the government has not launched a systematic review of physical abuse in the immigration detention system,” nor has a complaints mechanism for detainees been put in place.