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'We kept climbing higher and higher as the boat was sinking,'' Arif B. told me, describing how he spent three nights clinging to a sinking boat as he tried to reach Australia. Many of his fellow passengers died, he said.


Arif was only 15 when he fled Afghanistan, without his parents, and paid smugglers to take him to Indonesia. There, he was detained for months in sordid, overcrowded immigration detention facilities where the guards beat him. When he got out, he felt he had no options in Indonesia, so he risked the boat journey to Australia.


Arif is just one of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who make the same desperate calculation each year. This grim group includes hundreds of unaccompanied boys like Arif, and hundreds of young children whose parents are desperate to find them a better life.


One Afghan man in Indonesia knew the risks these families faced trying to reach Australia, but he said: ''They can't wait here. If they get there, good. If not, at least the suffering ends.''

The federal election is approaching and, with it, renewed debate on an old issue - migration by boat. Despite the harsh measures the government has taken in the past year to keep smugglers' boats from reaching our shores, the numbers are still rising.


About 17,000 people from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Burma and elsewhere arrived in 2012, far more than the 6000 annual average between 2009 and 2011.


Almost 1000 people are thought to have died on the crossing in the past 10 years. If Australia is serious about combating this risky migration, it should look north and push Indonesia to improve its asylum policies.


Indonesia's mistreatment of migrants, especially children, is the subject of a report published by Human Rights Watch on Monday. While researching for the report on conditions for asylum seekers in Indonesia, I spoke to dozens of people, including children.


Refugees face arbitrary, abusive detention in Indonesia, and cannot find work, or education for their children. It is true that many, if not most, have Australia as their desired destination, but if they get stranded in Indonesia, the appalling conditions there compel them to continue their journey.


Arif was rescued and taken back to Indonesia, which has no asylum law, so his legal status is tenuous. The UN refugee agency UNHCR gave Arif a certificate recognising him as a refugee, but this does not protect him from rearrest and detention. He cannot work, attend school or move freely around the country.


He knows how risky refugee boats are and he is now terrified of open water, but he said he feels he cannot survive in Indonesia much longer and that he will try to reach Australia again.


''I've made many attempts to go. I keep trying,'' Arif said.


Australia must understand that the conditions in Indonesia are one of the reasons people feel compelled to take the boat journeys here. Yes, Australia is the destination many asylum seekers have in mind but, given better conditions in Indonesia, many would refrain from risking their lives and their children's lives in this way.


The government is missing a crucial opportunity to address the dangers of these trips by offering support for the fair treatment of asylum seekers in Indonesia.


Despite its recent abysmal policies towards asylum seekers, Australia has ratified the UN's 1951 refugee convention and has a better record than Indonesia.


Australia resettles several hundred refugees, recognised by UNHCR, in Indonesia each year, and the government increased the number of resettlement places in 2012. Yet resettlement helps only a small fraction of those in limbo in Indonesia and other policies, such as offshore processing and child detention, are far too punitive.


Australia should act as a regional leader on asylum policy, rather than focusing on knee-jerk deterrence policies at home.


It should participate in regional dialogues that address migration, and push for a more humane approach towards migration that prioritises children's rights.


This country can strongly promote the development of refugee law in Indonesia, reaching out to work with the Indonesian government to ratify international refugee treaties and incorporate their provisions in national law.


We should help Indonesia to develop policies and programs to respond to the protection needs of unaccompanied migrant children.


If Australia is serious about addressing boat migration, it should look north and help to generate practical regional solutions for Arif and the thousands of other desperate people like him.


Working with Indonesia to improve their appalling policies would go a long way towards preventing people from taking deadly risks to try to reach here.

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