The 255 asylum seekers docked at the port in Merak in West Java are still refusing to leave their boat and be processed by Immigration Officials. Meanwhile the Oceanic Viking , promised permission to dock by Indonesia after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s “breakthrough” talks on Tuesday is being towed to a port near Singapore and the latest boat to be picked up has been sent to Christmas Island.

At least the Sri Lankans, led by spokesperson Alex, have made it back to dry land. So why won’t they get off the boat? They may have heard about the between one and 3000 asylum seekers currently being held in Indonesian jails, compounds and detention centres.

Jessie Taylor is a lawyer, refugee activist and documentary maker who recently returned from Indonesia after interviewing over 250 asylum seekers in 11 different detention centres across the country.

Taylor told Crikey that there’s a vast difference between the different centres. In North Sumatra they provide hostel style accommodation: “… nothing fancy but not appalling in terms of physical conditions. But there’s no medical care, education, or adequate food.”

In other places, “… babies and children reside in maximum security third-world jails.”

Taylor says she saw asylum seekers “treated like animals. There are beatings fairly frequently at the hands of Indonesian military and Immigration officials. If anyone escapes the rest who are left behind will be beaten as a warning.” Taylor continues:

At the Pontianak jail there was an escape of a few people in late July and the people left behind have been in lock down without permission to leave their cell since that day. There are children in there.

In places like Mataram, Lombok, there are rats running around, very young babies and children in putrid houses.

One mother from Iraq that I spoke to, who also teaches English, was so embarrassed to tell me about the rat infestation in her house.

Some people reside in extremely cramped conditions. In Jakarta … there’s a small office with two prison cells attached on the third floor of the immigration building. People can’t lie down at the same time so they can’t sleep at the same time.

In a prison in Pontianak … around 50 men and unaccompanied boys are locked up in a big cell just smaller than a tennis court, a concrete cell behind bars. It’s very hot and steamy and when the men do their business it flows into a ditch behind the building and just sits there and the stench is unbelievable.

The women and kids are kept in a three room house with no walls or windows or doors that you can lock, a shell of a house.

At the time there was a strange bunch of illegal Thai fisherman who’d been caught and put in jail. They were not under lock and key and had full access to the women and children … One of the mothers came up to me with tears in her eyes and said that very often she can’t find her daughters and she’s horrified at the prospect of them being s-xually assaulted.”

Detention and case processing in Indonesia is managed by a combination of the Indonesian government, the International Organization for Migration and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) with some funds funnelled from the Australian government.

Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre told Crikey that there are currently 2107 registrations with UNHCR in Indonesia. “If they trigger a claim while in detention then IOM is to notify UNHCR and UNHCR is supposed to visit them. People are waiting months for those visits. Currently, UNHCR are only processing around 40 people a week.”

IOM, as distinct from the UN, is an NGO with diplomatic immunity. It specialises in logistics and voluntary return.

Kaye Bernard, another refugee advocate, was recently in Lombok, Indonesia and told Crikey she visited some “long term asylum seekers who are housed there by IOM with money provided by Australia.” Below is a picture she took of the ablutions in one of the facilities she visited. This is used by a large extended family group of 21 men women and children who have been in Lombok since 2003:

Bernard told Crikey that she was “… advised by the asylum seekers who wake up to this every morning, that these ablution facilities are far more preferable to the Indonesian Immigration Detention facilities that they experienced after being randomly picked up by Indonesian Police and taken to at various times during their six years [on Lombok].”

Spokesperson from Senator Evans’ office Simon Dowding told Crikey , “… the department has committed about $5 million over the next two years to provide community accommodation for intercepted irregular migrants in Indonesia. The Australian Government recently announced a further $1 million funding to provide ongoing detention support to Indonesia over the next two years.”

“The IOM network, established in 2007, has offices located throughout Indonesia, from Medan in the west to Kupang in the east, adjacent to the main people smuggling routes,” says Dowding.

“The new funding over the next four years will enable the IOM to continue to provide assistance to Indonesian authorities to monitor and manage irregular migration flows and gather information on people smuggling activity. It will also reinforce the cooperation between the governments of Indonesia and Australia to control irregular migration and ensure the suitable treatment of irregular migrants. The office network will enable IOM to continue to refer intercepted irregular migrants to community accommodation arrangements and refer irregular migrants with protection needs to UNHCR for assessment,” says Dowding.

“From 1999 to January 2009, payments to IOM under these arrangements have totalled some $30 million.”

But on the ground, says Taylor, “… no one is sure where the lines of power lie between IOM and Indonesian officials. IOM has a very marked presence … and IOM as an organisation does not have a protection mandate.”

Taylor told Crikey, “… the bad end of the scale has people waiting 2 1/2 years. That’s the process between arrival, then registration, then an interview with UNHCR then status determination with UNHCR. There’s also the horror story of a young man whose been waiting more than nine years.”

But just because people are determined by the UNHCR to be refugees doesn’t mean the wait is over.

“The single most common question that we got asked when we there was, ‘UNHCR has found me to be a refugee. What am I still doing here?’,” recounts Taylor. “We would explain that you have to wait for a country to invite you, and that’s when they said ‘Oh.’ There’s a feeling that they’re going to be waiting a long time which is why they’re then getting on boats.”

Most of the people that Taylor met were very reluctant to risk their lives on a boat journey to Australia. But increasingly, says Taylor, as people fell victim to depression, anxiety and hopelessness their language became “quite dramatic”. “‘Look I can’t stay here,’ they’d say, ‘If I get to Australia and live that’s great, if I sink in the ocean and die that’s fine too.'”

The Rudd government has been reluctant to name a figure attached to the latest talks between Indonesia and Australia, but this morning The Australian is reporting that Indonesian immigration officials have told the paper that they would need about $50m to cover processing, detention and the cost of training.

Meanwhile, IOM is coming under increasing scrutiny for its role in actively persuading asylum seekers to return home.

Some asylum seekers refer to the IOM approach as “demotivation”, says Taylor. “What it consists of is a Good Cop/Bad Cop approach. People who come in and say, ‘Oh Indonesia is a bad place to live, they’re Sunni muslims and you’re Shia muslims … It’s taking 10 years for people to be processed. You can’t stay here … why don’t you just let us help you go home?’

“This is before UNHCR status determination and often before a UNHCR interview which mean no one has yet assessed the viability of safe return,” says Taylor.

Taylor told Crikey that she witnessed one of these approaches. Taylor watched an IOM official convince a group of young Afghan Hazara men to return home after arriving in Lombok. The man said “in a caring and paternal way that it was not a good idea to stay here and they should just go home,” says Taylor.

And they did. Most of them went back to war-torn Afghanistan with the help of IOM.

“But two kids escaped,” says Taylor. “The last I heard they were heading for a boat.”

“The worst thing is that people know that the best thing is to get on a leaky boat and make it to Christmas Island.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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