Magdalena Sitorus, head of Friends of Indonesian Children and Women, and solicitor Edwina Lloyd spoke at a forum on people smuggling on August 15, hosted by Indonesian Solidarity at Amnesty International’s Sydney offices.
Sitorus provided background on the status of children in Indonesian law.
That day Lloyd had represented an Indonesian boy imprisoned on a charge of people smuggling, at his first age determination hearing at Bankstown Court. So many people are facing people smuggling charges in Indonesia that Monday is known as “people smuggling day”, she said.
Officials from the Indonesian consulate, phone calls directly to his family, even visits by the media all indicated that the accused was a minor, she said. However the court decided instead to abide by regulations that permit age to be determined solely by results from a wrist x-ray.
Using wrist x-rays to determine age has been widely discredited. There is no single objective method for accurately determining chronological age, and many authorities agree obtaining evidence from families and villages is more accurate.
“It would make more sense to conduct age determination hearings before people are imprisoned,” Lloyd said. “Once they are in prison, the age determination process becomes subject to a slow and complex system of mentions, appearances, etc.”
Most of the imprisoned boys are frightened, unable to speak Englis, and lonely. Contact with family is minimal and they rarely receive any support. They are not appointed case workers, and have little in the way of comfort items, such as warm clothes for winter.
It is estimated there are about 70 underage children locked up in maximum security jails with adult prisoners who have committed serious offences. If convicted, they must serve a mandatory sentence of at least three years. To keep one “people smuggler” imprisoned costs taxpayers $95,000 a year.
These “people smugglers” are not “the vilest form of life” as previou PM Kevin Rudd claimed, but children. They are recruited from desperately poor villages to work as deck hands and cooks. For many of them, it is the only opportunity they have to make some money for their families.
From their perspective, they are crewing on a boat sailing to an island that is only about 100 kilometres away, and not a long voyage to the Australian mainland, over 1200 kilometres away.
Many of their villages lack running water, let alone electricity and the internet, so they would not be aware of DFAT’s YouTube propaganda about people smuggling. Many of them would not even be aware that Christmas Island sits in Australian waters, or that the island itself does not form part of Australia for immigration purposes.
Lloyd urged the Australian government to remove the regulations that produce this inhumane and expensive outcome.
“We need to replace it with a more appropriate scheme that involves social workers and ways to find evidence before they go into prison. Australia mistakenly hopes that by jailing people as part of its policy of ‘general deterrence’ that it will break the people smugglers’ business model. Rather than jailing breadwinners and making life harder for Indonesian families, it would be better to spend that money on aid.”