Ross B. Taylor
The only news we read these days about asylum seekers is from human rights groups who express concern over the detention of children being held in detention centres in Australia, Manus Island and Nauru. Only last month the distinguished Australian, Alastair Nicholson AO, who is a former chief justice of the Family Court and current chair of the advocacy group Children’s Rights International, expressed his deep concern about the plight of foreign children being held in custody by Australian authorities.
These concerns are valid, and many Australians would probably have the view that it is inhumane for young children to be held in detention for extended periods of time, albeit usually with a parent or an adult family member.
Immigration minister, Scott Morrison argues however, that preventing hundreds of people from drowning at sea whilst taking the highly dangerous journey from Java to Christmas Island is ‘very humane’. He also points out that all children are ‘protected’ whilst in detention, are segregated from adult detainees, and are afforded treatment that is ‘appropriate’ for children.
But what would happen if we started locking-up these asylum seeker children in our maximum security jails alongside hardened adult criminals including rapists, murderers, and paedophiles? Impossible? Yet that is exactly what Australia did to children from Indonesia over a four-year period as part of a policy designed to stop the activities of people smugglers.
During the time of the Gillard government, arrivals of asylum seekers into Australian territory by rickety old boats threatened to overrun the entire border protection system. In its haste to be seen as ‘tough on people smugglers’ the government introduced legislation that would see those involved in the transport of asylum seekers sentenced to mandatory five-year terms in Australian maximum security jails. This sounds reasonable one would think, yet no one considered the horrifying possibility that the people smugglers may seek-out young children from remote Indonesian villages to work as deckhands on these boats? This is what they did.
The end result was that by 2011 there were over fifty Indonesian children - some as young as 13 years of age - locked up in Australian maximum security prisons, including here in Perth, as ‘people smugglers’. These kids, most of whom were educated to around year three at some small village school, were placed in an environment where they were in daily contact with convicted adult criminals.
The Australian government’s original intention was obviously not to lock-up foreign kids, but as a result of the new laws this is what happened. The most disturbing aspect of this outcome was for our government to then simply deny that poor children from Indonesia had been caught-up in this terrible trade and in a number of cases knowingly allowed under-age children to be placed in these adult prisons, often without trial, for over two years.
One case involved a young boy, Yasmin Ali, from the small island of Roti in Eastern Indonesia. Yasmin was only 13 when arrested in 2009 (for being a kitchen-hand on one of the asylum seeker boats) for his alleged involvement in people smuggling. He was then held in Perth’s high security adult prison (Hakea) for almost 12 months awaiting trial. When Yasmin finally faced the Perth District Court in 2010, the Legal Aid lawyer - who was supposed to be representing this boy - failed to present to the judge documentary proof that Yasmin was born in 1996, and thus was only 13 when first arrested by Australian authorities.
The Department of Immigration was also in possession of additional documents, that had been earlier handed to them from the Indonesian Consulate in Perth, confirming the boy’s age. These documents also, were never presented in court, nor acted upon by the Department.
Yasmin Ali was consequently sentenced to five years jail in a maximum adult prison here in Perth.
The plight of Yasmin and numerous other Indonesian children was brought to the public attention as an Opinion piece in The West Australian during April 2011. The reaction from many readers was either silence or as one responded stated, “...if these children do the crime, they should do the time.” Other comments included suggesting that as these children were originally from very poor and isolated villages, they would be ‘better-off’ in an Australian jail than in their home villages.
Meanwhile, as the children had not been allowed to make contact with their families back home in Indonesia, most parents had actually thought their child had been lost at sea, or simply had no idea where their sons’ had gone.
How could it have come to this? Australia is, by any measurement, a decent and normally caring country, so how could everyday Australians take such a view of children as young as thirteen being incarcerated in our adult prisons? Imagine the reaction here in Australia if a young Australian boy was locked-up in an adult maximum security prison in Java for this amount of time? There would have been outrage at the very least. But young kids from isolated Indonesian villages have very few rights, and certainly no voice, and there were at least fifty of them trapped in a justice system gone terribly wrong.
It was only after constant lobbying by a number of caring organisations, including Australian journalists’ Hamish McDonald and Sam Clark who actually travelled to these very remote villages, that the Indonesian government formally took-up the issue with the Gillard government and provided, in many cases, confirmation of the ages of the children; a number of whom were pre-pubescent according to Australian doctors who had examined them.
The then attorney-general Nicola Roxon, facing a diplomatic incident with - and growing anger within - Indonesia belatedly decided to release these children from jail and send them back home. But the damage had been done.
The actions of the Gillard government in firstly jailing these young children, and then to deliberately block efforts to have their ages verified, resulted in the unthinkable happening. Poorly crafted and rushed policy saw these kids suffer as no children should; particularly in Australia.
The paradox is that today, young Indonesian children are not even being approached by people smugglers. There is no more business to be done. No ‘fishing’ jobs to offer children as deckhands. The future child ‘people smugglers’ are now where they should be: playing in their villages.
The Abbott government has therefore provided an ‘accidental’ humanitarian gift to these children in Indonesia through its tough stance on people smuggling and effectively ‘stopping the boats’. But the question that remains is what to do our regional neighbours do with the thousands of genuine refugees who are now ‘stuck’ in their countries with nowhere to go?
At a senior political level, Indonesian officials acknowledge that since the introduction of the Abbott government’s people smuggling policy, the flow of asylum seekers coming to Indonesia - as a transit point rather than a final destination - has slowed dramatically as they learn that the back-door into Australia is now firmly closed. A ‘win’ for both Indonesia and Australia, and certainly a huge ‘win’ for the hundreds of Indonesian children who would otherwise be enticed onto these boats by ruthless people seeking to exploit them for their own gain.
(This story was originally published as a feature article in The West Australian newspaper on Saturday 27th September 2014)