Hundreds of Sri Lankan asylum seekers remain in limbo on anchored boats in Indonesian waters, waiting patiently for the United Nations to come on board and determine if they are, in fact, refugees.
Instead of allowing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to process the asylum seekers, the Australian and Indonesian governments are trying to coax them onto Indonesian soil.
But the asylum seekers are nobody’s fools. They know very well that setting foot on Java and Bintan islands will mean being caught up in a corrupt justice system in a country that has no legal framework to protect refugees. And they know where the Australian Government will be putting them up for their stay — behind bars in conditions comparable to home.
"We are from Sri Lanka, and we know that Indonesia is a third-world country, just like ours," said the spokesperson for one of the groups, who is known only as Alex. "You can understand why people don’t want to end up in Indonesian detention centres."
Alex’s fear of being locked up in Indonesia is more than warranted. The Indonesian justice system is notoriously corrupt and its jails and detention centres hopelessly under-resourced.
As has been widely reported, in Bintan’s Tanjung Pinang detention centre (that’s the one the 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on board the Oceanic Viking may soon be forced to call home) Afghan refugees have complained of abuse by guards. The Australian Government has said that the claims will be investigated, yet it is trying to push the asylum seekers into the facility this week, and it has not ruled out using force to get them off the boat.
Although it has a capacity of more than 600, and only 84 are reportedly in detention there, questions have been raised as to whether the facility is ready to take another 78 people. The UNHCR says the facility is not yet linked to the power grid, relying on generators, and that it is understaffed. Local officials said the facility had no running water.
But incredibly, Tanjung Pinang is actually one of the best of a very bad lot. According to the UNHCR, "Tanjung Pinang was recently renovated, and so is one of the better-equipped centres in Indonesia."
"These detention centres are [all]overcrowded," says Ricky Gunawan of the Community Legal Aid Institute in Jakarta. "At the Kalideres detention centre in Jakarta, for example, 15 to 20 people sleep on the floor of five-by-six-metre rooms."
"The water isn’t drinkable, and the detainees can’t access water whenever they need it. They do eat regular meals, like fried rice, but it’s such bad quality, it’s not really fit for eating. That’s why many relatives come and bring extra food," he said.
Gunawan said he had not received reports of abuse from Kalideres, but detainees had complained of high levels of stress. "One refugee from Iraq I spoke with was suicidal, and I’m sure others are."
Despite these conditions, Gunawan said that because of the international attention to refugee centres, those facilities were kept in far better shape than the country’s prisons, where abuse and corruption are rife.
A 2008 report by the UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, found abuse by guards across the nation’s prisons was common. He also concluded that torture was routine practice by police in Jakarta and other metropolitan areas of Java.
In response to questions from newmatilda.com, the Directorate of Correctional Institutions said abuse did occur in the nation’s facilities, but rejected that it was wide-scale. The head of the Directorate’s human rights department, Chandran Lestyono, admitted that the department had no data on abuse cases and that no one was looking into it.
Lestyono said that overcrowding was a major contributor to the problem. "In Jakarta’s Cipinang prison, there is a capacity of 1500, but on average, we have around 3000 inmates," he told newmatilda.com. Much of the time, Cipinang holds far more than twice its capacity. A cell that should hold four to seven people will often have 20 to 30 sleeping on the floor.
And overcrowding in Indonesian jails is worsening each year. In 2006, the nation’s prisons were 36,194 inmates, or 47 per cent, over capacity. This year, they are 58 per cent over.
"It’s a funding issue," Lestyono said. "Every year, we ask the Government for more money. The costs to run the facilities are always rising. And of course, with overcrowding, inmates are more vulnerable to abuse."
But according to Ricky Gunawan, it is not overcrowding that is responsible for the majority of the violence in Indonesian jails — it’s corruption. "If an inmate wants a friend or relative to visit them, the visitor has to pay the guard," he told newmatilda.com. And if they don’t pay up, the prisoner pays for it in other ways.
Indonesia’s jails and detention centres operate within the context of a justice system that is just as corrupt. Transparency International pegs Indonesia as the 48th most corrupt country on its corruption perceptions index of 180 nations — on par with Libya, Uganda and Honduras. Last year, TI found the Immigration Office to be the third-most corrupt public institution, after the National Police and Customs. The judiciary came in eighth.
If the Sri Lankan asylum seekers step onto Indonesian land without speaking to the UNHCR first, their fate will lie in the hands of these corrupt institutions.
"We are willing to cooperate and give our details, but we’ll only do that with a country that’s signed to the convention for refugees or the UNHCR, which has taken an oath to protect the privacy of refugees," Alex said, on behalf of his fellow asylum seekers.
"We contacted them in Geneva and Canberra, and they say they’re willing to come at any time, but the Indonesian Government isn’t giving them the permission."
Whether Australia is involved with Indonesia’s decision to deny the UN agency access to the asylum seekers is unknown. "That’s an operational matter that has nothing to do with the prime minister," said Kevin Rudd’s spokesman, Lachlan Harris. "That is up to the people on the vessel."
But the asylum seekers think Australia could do more to allow the United Nations to process their cases.
"If the Australian Government cared for refugees, they would understand UNHCR are the best people to take down our details first. Indonesia hasn’t taken any oath to protect refugees’ privacy or details. If we give them information about ourselves, this could cost the lives of our families back home," he said.
He addressed the Australian Government: "If you’re not willing to take us, then please stop sending funds to Indonesia. If Australia has no interest in protecting our international needs, then why are you sending funds to Indonesia to take care of refugees you don’t want? Is it some kind of bribery or a way to manipulate the system?"
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