Two asylum-seeking boys stand on a staircase while detained at Belawan Immigration Detention Center in September 2012

(c) 2012 Kyle Knight / Human Rights Watch

As told by Alice Farmer, children's rights researcher

I met Arif, a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan, in a Pizza Hut near Jakarta, Indonesia. He dressed neatly, with his hair carefully slicked back. He held himself with confidence, dressed in a pressed, white t-shirt, but beneath the exterior I saw a boy who lived thousands of miles away from his family, who had risked his life repeatedly for safety and opportunity.

We were meeting to discuss Arif’s experiences while locked up in Indonesia’s immigration detention system. But his story began when, at 15, he borrowed $7,000 from his oldest brother, who lived in Australia, to hire smugglers to sneak him out of Afghanistan and into Indonesia. He ultimately planned to join his brother in Australia, where he hoped to claim asylum, go to school and build a new life.

Over pizza, Arif told me about his first attempt to reach Australia by boat. This part of his story would not go well, I knew. Inevitably, the stories I hear from so many of the boys I interview – my boys, as I think of them – involve harrowing events.

Each year, a growing number of asylum-seeking and refugee children—primarily from Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Burma— enter Indonesia in search of safer lives. Their numbers have risen each year over the last five years – a total of about 2,000 by this year. The families of some of these children, often teenage boys like Arif, sent them off in the hope they would find a safer place, but it means they take this dangerous journey by themselves. More than 1,000 unaccompanied children like Arif entered Indonesia in 2012. Yet Indonesia does not help these children find safe housing or enter school, and they often end up either in immigration detention – where they can be held for up to 10 years – or fending for themselves.

In detention, children are housed in overcrowded conditions with adults they don’t know, and some aren’t allowed to go outside their building for weeks or months. Some have been beaten by guards or watched others being beaten. They may have one toilet for scores of people, inadequate food, and the buildings may flood during the rainy season. Indonesia has no refugee law, so these children can’t live there legally, which often means they can’t attend school or build a future.

Half-way through the 15-day boat journey to Australia – a voyage on which hundreds of children perish each year – Arif’s ship began to sink in the Indian Ocean. He and the other passengers were rescued by a passing cargo ship and returned to Indonesia, where Arif was locked up in immigration detention. Even though he was 15, he shared a cell with adult men.  When he tried to escape, Arif said, the guards beat him in the center’s courtyard, hitting and kicking his back, face, and ribs, while other detainees, including a 7-year-old Iranian boy, watched.

He was moved to another detention facility. Afraid of what could happen to him, he bribed the guard with $400 to let him out.

Once again, Arif paid a smuggler to put him on a boat to Australia. This time, he almost died. The boat slowly sank, and most of the passengers drowned. Arif survived by clinging for three days to the boat’s side, crawling higher as the boat sank lower. Three days without food. Three days without water. He was eventually rescued and returned to Indonesia, where he now lives in a shelter run by a non-governmental organization.

I have interviewed many boys who, like Arif, are traveling alone. They are often their family’s last hope – their parents sell off their last piece of land or borrow money to help them flee the violence or poverty of their homelands. They are resilient and brave, undertaking these remarkable journeys alone. They also carry a heavy weight on their shoulders – they know the sacrifices their family made to send them into safety, and they are desperate to make good on their opportunities, no matter how slim.

I get angry just thinking about the treatment these boys receive in Indonesia. It’s not just that they’re locked up and treated badly. It’s also that these kids have so much riding on finding a home and a job, and so much potential.

It would not cost Indonesia much to give them a couple of years of education and a place to sleep. These boys would do nothing but work hard, pay taxes, and send money home. They would be such an asset to any country.

I grew up living in London with American parents, and have the luxury of being able to work in the United States and the United Kingdom as well as other European Union countries. It’s the opposite experience of so many, who have to struggle for the right to be anywhere.

I began working with refugees in law school. At the time, it was a pragmatic decision. I had a summer grant to do public interest work, and the grant was bigger if I went abroad, so I went to the Balkans. After graduation I took a job with the US Department of Justice, where I worked on asylum and torture cases, then was hired by the UN Refugee Agency.

While at the refugee agency in Liberia, I learned on a deeper level how much someone’s identity is shaped by belonging to a place. Being from two different countries, I was conscious of belonging to two places while also not completely belonging to either. There, I came face-to-face with people who felt forced to flee the places where they were deeply rooted. They left everything behind and were rarely welcomed into any country.

Their kids face the same issues, but at a crucial point in their development. Kids in my own world worry about what schools they’ll attend, but the boys I interview will be lucky if they ever go back to school. I know kids who can’t make it to school without a lift. By comparison, one of my boys, who traveled from Iran to reach the European Union, got frostbite on his feet crossing mountains.

Although he is now living in relative freedom, Arif could be rearrested by Indonesian authorities at any time. He received refugee status from the United Nations, but Indonesia has no asylum laws. This means that although he has this certificate from the United Nations saying he’s a refugee, the Indonesian government doesn’t recognize it. While there, Arif will always be in peril of being locked up, detained, abused, and neglected.

Yet some of my boys have made it to the other side. One went to England from Afghanistan at age 14 knowing little English and having studied only at Koranic schools. Three years later, he was only one year behind his English classmates and taking high-level math classes. Another fled Côte d’Ivoire for Malta. When I asked him about the main issue he had in immigration detention, it was that he couldn’t pursue his métier, French for passion or profession, which was football (soccer). The next time I saw him, Malta’s national football team had offered him a contract to play for them.

Arif told me that he’s going to take another boat to Australia. He feels he has so few options in Indonesia that he needs to try again, despite the dangers of the perilousjourney. I hope he makes it. He’s bound to make a success of himself in Australia if he arrives safely.