Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

High stakes

High stakes

ASRIANA KEBON speaks to Indonesian underage minors who were returned to Indonesia following age determination hearings in Darwin


Rudi wearing his Australian school uniform
Asriana Kebon

I first met Rudi and Joni at the Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin, in 2010. They were two bewildered young boys floating like flotsam and jetsam in a sea of adult men. From the outset it was obvious that they were naive teens who had found themselves in a precarious situation outside of their control. They stood by each other looking at their new surroundings, occasionally letting out a nervous giggle. Their hands shook as they took a puff of the last clove cigarette they had. Rudi and Joni stayed close by the older men, looking for guidance. The older men kept them close by, as if they knew of the fate that awaited these adolescents.

Two years on from our initial meeting, I travelled to West Java to meet with the boys again and see how they were after returning to Indonesia. I spoke to Rudi and Joni about their long battle to get home. For their safety their names and any other identifying factors have been changed.

Of men and fish

It’s said that men and fish are alike. They both get into trouble when they open their mouths.

Rudi and Joni’s story begins in Pelabuhan Ratu, an isolated fishing village on the south coast of West Java. They were born into families where the men for generations have been traditional fishers. Their homes are like most of the houses in fishing villages throughout Indonesia, situated just metres from the crashing surf. Like most teens, Rudi and Joni like to play soccer on the local football oval, they enjoy listening to the latest music and play on-line games at the local game shop. But these two boys are not your average Indonesian teens. They have aged beyond their years. Their eyes tell of secrets that no young boy should know of. Before they left on their journey they were just Rudi and Joni, local boys who were inseparable. Wherever there was mischief you were sure to find the boys.

How, then, did they find themselves thousands of kilometres away from home incarcerated in the Northern Immigration Detention Centre? The simple answer is that they were detained for people smuggling. The two boys were the crew of a boat that made it all the way to the Christmas Island pier in 2010. The full story, of course, is far more complex. Rudi and Joni explained that, like most boys their age, they were influenced by peer pressure, and media advertising. They wanted new mobile phones, new clothes and a new motorcycle to impress the girls with; all of which their families were unable to provide. They knew their parents simply could not afford these things, so they decided to make some money for themselves.

During the year and a half before they left, they had heard stories of local men going away to work overseas. The stories that were passing from friend to friend like Chinese whispers. These men were away for a long time but when they came back, they would bring hundreds of dollars with them. The boys were intrigued by this money making scheme. They talked about it for days and then decided that they would do the same as the other men. The boys decided that there was more money to be made ‘herding goats’ (people from the Middle East) and taking them to Australia than fishing.

A man's mind plans his way, but God directs his steps

Rudi and Joni are traditional boys from the coast. Their Islamic faith is strong but they also believe in the power of mysticism. They believe in Kanjeng Ratu Nyai Roro Kidul, the Queen of the Southern Seas who will protect them on their sea voyages. They went to see a dukun (traditional healer) before they set sail.

They told the dukun that they would be taking ‘goats’ across the Indian Ocean to an Island. The dukun listened to the story that the boys were told by their boss – that they would have to take their human cargo to an island not far from Pelabuhan Ratu where another boat would meet them and take the goats from them. Upon hearing this story, the dukun (a wise man, who had heard the same story many times before) gave the boys sage advice, amulets, and a potion they were to drink that would protect them.

The dukun told the boys to be careful, to take care of each other and to never get separated. He told them that if they reached the shore of the island, to turn around and get home no matter how much fuel they had with them. Finally, the boys were given a drink and amulet that would make them invisible to danger.

The boys set sail on their adventure and in early 2010 docked at the pier on Christmas Island. The dukun’s charms and potions had worked, and the boys had indeed been invisible. They had bypassed all of the guards and systems that the Australian Navy and Customs patrol boats had in place. They had arrived unnoticed. The boys looked at their human cargo, calculated the amount of fuel, oil and food they had left and then made their fateful decision. As the sun rose, they decided to deliberately drive the boat into the pier several times, yell and scream with their passengers to try and get attention. They decided that they would not risk going back to Indonesia as their fuel, oil and provisions would only get them half way.

Lost time is never found again

After being processed on Christmas Island, the boys were transferred to Darwin and detained at the Northern Immigration Detention Centre. They lived there with other Indonesian men, all held for people smuggling offences. They were re-united with the men from their village who had disappeared months before. At first they enjoyed their incarceration. They were well looked after; the meals (though bland) were good; they were given clothing and allowed unlimited access to the internet. All of their needs were met. They were comfortable. Each week they could get a small supply of cigarettes and other necessities from the canteen. Like many other Indonesian teenagers, both boys were heavy smokers. In their naivety, they made the decision to stay in the adult compound so as to be able to smoke.

After several months of eating chicken and rice, their smiles began to fade. Reality kicked in. They listened to the stories of the older men, some of who had been held for over a year. They were questioned by Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), counselled by Legal Aid and interrogated by the Australian Federal Police. It became apparent to them that this was not a game. They realised that they were in trouble and that they had been lied to by the organisers and bosses of the people smuggling ring. Their fishing boss in Java had told them that they would be returned to Indonesia within three months.

Joni was the first to buckle. He approached a Serco guard, confessing that he was 17. Within minutes of this confession, Joni was removed from the adult compound and transferred to Berrimah House where the underage minors were held. In the space of a few weeks Joni went through a barrage of interviews, tests, and medical x-rays to determine if his left wrist bone had fused and whether or not his bone age indicated if he was over seventeen. It was at this time that he confessed to his parents that he was not working on a commercial tuna fishing boat overseas and in fact was being detained at an immigration detention centre. His parents began their struggle to gather documents to prove their son was seventeen years old. The process was lengthy but Joni was eventually proved to be under age and was repatriated.

Rudi not sure of what was happening. Confused and having lost hope, he thought that Joni’s actions would be in vain. He carried on his charade for a few more months until he heard that the underage minors were really being sent home. He gathered his courage and reported to a Serco guard that he, too, was underage.

But Rudi’s struggle to prove that he was a minor was an uphill battle. The authorities thought that he was trying to copy-cat Joni’s claims. One day Australian Federal Police officers arrived at detention centre to take Rudi to the Darwin watch-house. There, he was read the charges against him and had his photo as well as his fingerprints taken. He appeared in the Magistrate’s court several times and listened while the Commonwealth Public Prosecutor read the charges against him. Through an interpreter he heard that he was being charged with aggravated people smuggling.

After nearly a year in Darwin, Rudi finally won his case. The charges against him were dropped and it was established that, at the time of the offence, he was under 17 years of age. Reflecting on all that happened Rudi believes that it was God’s will and the dukun’s powers that allowed him to get home again.

From servitude to freedom

The boys were sixteen years old when they set forth on their venture. They were barely eighteen years old when they were finally repatriated to Indonesia. Rudi and Joni were very fortunate in being able to prove that they were underage minors. Sadly there have been many cases where young Indonesian boys have been mistakenly charged as adults and have spent time in Australian prisons with hardened criminals.

Now back in West Java, the boys smile and reminisce about their time in Australia. They laugh and joke about their own stupidity, their gullibility and unworldliness. They admit to taking their passengers to a faraway island they thought was still a Casino island owned by Tommy Suharto. They had no idea that Christmas Island was a part of Australia.

The boys are thankful for their time in Australia and are happy to have had the opportunity to attend school at Sanderson Middle School, they are fond of the Serco guards who took care of them and speak highly of the immigration officials and police officers who treated them with respect and due care. There is however a dark side to their story. The boys say that they were asked by the Australian authorities if their lives would be in danger upon their return home. At the time, they said that they would be fine. Unbeknownst to them, their safety was and remains precarious. Joni, Rudi and the other boys are scared that they will be accused of cooperating with the Australian authorities. They fear that they are being watched by individuals within the smuggling network and no longer trust their friends and other fishers.

Rudi and Joni have escaped, if not unscathed, from their risky adventure. But things could have easily gone very wrong. They hope that in sharing their experiences they will be able to help to educate other young seafarers and stop them from being duped into shipping ‘goats’ to Australia on the promise of the wherewithal to purchase a few consumer goods.


Asriana Kebon (asriana.kebon@cdu.edu.au) is researching people smuggling and human trafficking in Indonesia. Asriana would like to thank Rudi, Joni and their respective families for inviting her into their homes, for showing her the beauty of the seas that surround Pelabuan Ratu and for sharing their amazing story with her.{jcomments on}

Inside Indonesia 109: Jul-Sep 2012

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