Falsely identified as adults by a controversial X-ray technique, three teenagers from Rote Island, East Indonesia, spent a year in an Australian jail on charges of people smuggling until it was proven they were underage.
Ose, 15, his 16-year-old cousin Ako and their 15-year-old friend John Ndollu were selling their catch at the local fish market in Kupang when they became involved in a people-smuggling ring.
"To tell you the absolute truth if I knew what was going to happen I would have stayed here and kept fishing near my home. I was tricked," says Ose, who, like many Indonesians goes by one name.
Offered the equivalent of more than 10 years wages to work as cooks on a boat, the two cousins and their friend didn’t think twice about saying yes. Earning a monthly wage of Rp25,000 ($AUD2.50), the prospect of a Rp5-million ($500) paycheck was appealing.
The three teenagers are from Manamola, a remote village on the far flung island of Rote and the closest Indonesian island to Australia. It is one of the poorest places in Indonesia and most people in the village live on one meal a day.
Blinded by the offer, the Rote Island teenagers did not suspect anything was amiss until they were already on the boat. By then, they say, it was too late to renege on the deal.
"When I got to the place where the people were, I did not know what place it was. I was on the boat," he said. "I asked myself, ‘what kind of place is this?’ But I just followed along. I went wherever they told to me to go."
The boat, carrying aslyum seekers, was at sea for less than 24 hours before they were arrested by Australian border patrol.
"We had no idea, so we kept very quiet because we had been tricked," says Ose, explaining that they did not understand the charges until it was explained to them by an interpreter in Australia.
The youths were transferred to a juvenile immigration detention centre in Darwin where they were held for nine months. It was there that the boys were assessed by immigration officials to determine whether they were adults or not.
Under Australian law, adult people smugglers face mandatory five-year jail sentences, but minors are invariably sent back to their country without charge. As the Indonesian teenagers did not have documents to prove they were minors, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) used the controversial wrist X-ray technique to determine their age. The results showed a high likelihood that the boys were over 18.
"They thought we were adults. The thing is that here [in Indonesia]we work hard. Since we were young we have spent every night working hard at sea so we look much bigger and older than we are," says Ose.
"I didn’t believe it when they told me I was an adult … My parents were the ones who gave birth to me, not that machine. I didn’t believe it," he says.
The founding Children’s Commissioner in the UK, Sir Al Aynsley Green, was asked by Australia lawyers to give expert evidence in the cases of the three Rote boys. He denounced the Australian government for relying on the method in court. "Serious injustice is possible by a decision being driven by using a method involving wrist X-ray, which has been rejected elsewhere and which is unethical, not fit for purpose proposed, inaccurate, and potentially unlawful," Sir Aynsley Green told the court.
However, on the basis of the X-ray results, the boys were sent to Arthur Gorrie, an adult prison in Brisbane.
"We cried every night because we had never experienced anything like that. It was soul destroying. We found the food difficult because white people eat lots of bread whereas Indonesians like to eat rice. So we felt very desperate because we only got very little rice," recalls Ako.
Only four out of a total 400 people arrested over smuggling offences have been proven to be organisers of people smuggling syndicates. The rest were crewmembers on asylum seeker vessels, mostly deckhands and cooks recruited from remote villages in Indonesia.
Back in Rote, Ose and Ako’s families thought the boys were lost for good. "For six months we had no news about them so we thought they were lost at sea … dead. It was very hard. I was worried … didn’t know what to do," says Ose’s sister.
Both Ose and Ako are orphans and John’s father died when he was young. His mother imagined a life alone. "She cried. She felt very sad. She thought that I had gone. So she was sad," says John.
Ako, Ose and John were freed after a group of Australian lawyers took up their case pro bono. With testimonies obtained from their families in Rote, the lawyers argued successfully that the boys were underage and had been tricked into people smuggling.
All charges were dropped and after more than a year in detention they were on the way home, travelling on a plane for the first time in their lives.
"Ose was so overwhelmed with joy to be home that he fainted before he reached his house and had to be carried in," says the village pastor, Father Frans Seka.
"Everyone was crying … after we had prayed together then we started to hear their stories and people started to smile and laugh but at first it was tears of joy that our boys had come home!"
Following their release, the AFP say they will now use additional measures to determine age, including dental X-rays, and will try to collect documents from families back home. Last week, in a landmark decision that could affect dozens more cases involving Indonesians before the courts, the West Australian District Court ruled the X-ray unreliable and the methodology flawed.
The Indonesian government has repeatedly expressed concern that its children are being jailed. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd recently assured his Indonesian counterpart that Australia would "deal humanely" with children caught up in the people-smuggling trade.
It is thought there may be as many as 40 Indonesian boys in Australia jails, with some as young as 13. Ose is relieved he is no longer on of them. "I cried every night. I just wanted to come home to meet my family," he says. "Thank God it was fate that I was able to return home safely."
The three boys have no work back in their village but they say they will never take a similar offer.
"I’m afraid. Afraid to be sent to prison in Australia. It was a long time and I was very far away from my Mum. I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want to be away from my Mum anymore," says John staring at the dirt floor of his one bedroom thatched house.
Rebecca Henschke went to Kupang with Hagar Cohen to report for the ABC’s Background Briefing. You can hear their audio report here.
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