Nov 16, 2018 Last Updated 12:17 PM, Nov 15, 2018

All alone

Published: Mar 13, 2016

 Realisa D Masardi

During my visit to Church World Service shelters in Bogor in 2012, I met a 10-year-old boy from Afghanistan who travelled with his father, cousin, and uncle to Indonesia. All of them but him died when their boat sank. The boy was the youngest in the shelter, and the only unaccompanied minor. An older boy in the shelter told me that he did not talk much when he arrived, but now he is getting more cheerful. 

In most settings, children receive priority, and standards and restrictions that apply to adults are waived. Children are the first to be saved in a dangerous situation, and they are the last to be blamed if rules are broken. Almost all UN member countries, including Indonesia, showed their commitment to protecting children by ratifying the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Given this fact, it can be expected that all minors in Indonesia enjoy preferential treatment. But in the context of minor refugees and asylum seekers, does the current treatment ensure the best interests of these children?

The most precarious group

By August 2015, UNHCR Indonesia registered 3672 minor refugees and asylum seekers, including 1133 unaccompanied and separated children. The UN considers unaccompanied minors the most vulnerable group among all children because they do not have a guardian to rely on. In most cases, unaccompanied minors in Indonesia are sent from their homeland by their parents, with the help of smugglers. Sometimes they are orphans, and relatives help them pay smugglers to take dangerous journeys in the hope of a better future in another country.

There are also a number of children who start their journey with parents or guardians but become separated along the way due to accidents or different smuggling routes. Separation and incidents on the journey often cause severe trauma. These children have to cope with the loss of loved ones, along with culture shock, complicated asylum procedures and precarious day-to-day conditions – on their own.

Unaccompanied minors face greater difficulty seeking asylum compared to those with guardians. They are often trapped between national immigration and child protection regimes. As minors, they can receive accelerated refugee status decisions, but they often have to wait a significant amount of time to be resettled because few countries accept children with no guardian. As a consequence, many unaccompanied minors have to wait until they are 18 years old to be resettled in a third country.

The majority of the unaccompanied minors in Indonesia are from the Hazara ethnic group of Afghanistan (59 per cent), followed by Rohingya from Myanmar (28 per cent) and children from Somalia (8 per cent). Of the 1133 unaccompanied minors, 976 are boys and 157 are girls. This gender skew illustrates a common feature of children’s migration: boys are encouraged to pursue opportunities independently, or are even sent out as ‘parachute’ or ‘anchor children’, while girls are forbidden to travel without a trusted adult.

However, in the Southeast Asia context, this figure has gradually changed as more underage girls are travelling without a guardian. UNHCR Indonesia records show that of 287 underage Rohingya children (12–17 year-olds) in Aceh and Medan, 105 are female. When I visited Rohingya refugee camps in Aceh in June 2015, I met numerous underage girls who had travelled with children of their own, hoping to reunite with husbands or relatives in Malaysia. Despite UNHCR registering them as separated children with multiple vulnerabilities, the local government classified them as adults. The number of Rohingya girls being smuggled and sold as child brides to Rohingya men in Malaysia has increased, UNHCR has identified over 120 Rohingya child brides in Malaysia, some as young as 11.

Capacity problems

Unlike other refugee children who can live in community housing with their family, many unaccompanied minors must stay inside detention centres while waiting for ‘sufficient’ accommodation. In August 2015, there were 461 unaccompanied minors (41 per cent of the total number) detained in immigration detention centres across the country. Such centres are jail-like and limit freedom of movement. Moreover, children have to share rooms with adults, exposing them to abuse and physical violence. A 15-year-old unaccompanied Hazara boy said, ‘People in detention centers are not happy. People became mentally ill there. We said this so many times to everyone, but no one came to help us’.

SUAKA the Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Rights Protection advocates to end child detention in Indonesia. However, Indonesian authorities hold some concerns about quickly releasing all minors from detention. The first is where to accommodate children after release. UNHCR with its implementing partner, Church World Service, is responsible for the care of unaccompanied minors, but only have capacity to accommodate 80 children. In addition, 65 unaccompanied minors, some of them girls, stay in a Community Accommodation Centre managed by the Department of Social Affairs and supported by International Organization for Migration (IOM). Due to lack of capacity, hundreds of minors remain inside detention.

The second concern relates to procedures and budget allocation to implement fast release. Although the Indonesian Law on Immigration (article 83 (2)) allows the release of children from detention, there is no standard process, guidelines or national budget allocation to implement it. 

Compared to other accommodation, Church World Service shelters are far better for unaccompanied minors because they provides suitable facilities, decent living conditions, health services, freedom of movement and even guardians. Since July 2015, UNHCR has placed one guardian in each shelter – usually an adult from refugee communities who can speak the same language as the minors. Guardians are assigned to look after the minors round the clock, to talk with them if they have problems, and act as their guardian if the minors need to go to hospital. Having a guardian who understands their own culture allows children to discuss their problems and anxiety more openly.

However, staying in Church World Service’s shelters does not guarantee that the children will not face other precarious conditions. As unaccompanied minors arrive in Indonesia between the ages of 11–17 years, it is very possible they turn 18 before being resettled in another country. When this happens, they have to move out from the shelters. A 17-year-old boy in Church World Service’s shelter in Jakarta told me, ‘I will turn 18 next year in January. I am so afraid because I have to move out. UNHCR will support me for three months after my birthday. But then if I don’t have money and IOM also cannot help me, I am afraid I have to stay inside a detention centre.

About 233 independent unaccompanied minors live outside detention with support from friends or family. These children’s condition is even more precarious because they do not receive any support or protection. They face a high risk of being smuggled or trafficked while waiting for a decision on their refugee status. A senior UNHCR official has reported many cases of asylum seekers, including minors, asking to be detained because they can no longer support themselves.

No formal education

The absence of national law regulating the rights of refugee children means child protection programs cannot operate. Although Indonesia has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Related to the Status of Refugees, the CRC has been passed into domestic law. Child Protection Law No. 23/2002, however, only regulates protection mechanism for children of Indonesian citizens, not for the ‘unauthorised’ children. As a consequence, many programs provided for refugee children, including unaccompanied minors, are not state-funded. As a result, it is very difficult for unaccompanied minors to access formal education in Indonesia. An orphan child said, ‘I went to school in Afghanistan for 5 years. Here, we cannot go to school because we cannot speak Bahasa Indonesia and there is not enough money to support us.’

Beside fluency in Bahasa Indonesia, children must have proper documentation for school registration. 

Even if a school accepts enrolment, it is still very difficult to obtain a national student number (NISN). Without this, refugee students cannot receive diplomas to continue their education after resettlement. UNHCR and local partners have done some advocacy, but the decision is still in the hands of the school principal and the regional immigration office. There is one success story: in Medan, UNHCR and Indonesian Red Cross Society have supported the sending of five refugee children to public schools. 

Unaccompanied minors cannot avoid Indonesia’s immigration regime. Although in principal they may enjoy some preferential treatment such as acceleration in the refugee process and special shelters, a lack of national regulation and capacity problems remain the biggest challenge to their protection in Indonesia. Their condition will remain very precarious if Indonesia does not take further steps to act in the best interest of these children.

Realisa D Masardi (R.D.Masardi@uva.nl) teaches in the Department of Anthropology, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. Currently, she is a PhD candidate in Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam.


Inside Indonesia 124: Apr-Jun 2016

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