Indonesia: Children Seeking Refuge Find Abuse, Neglect

Detained, Beaten in Squalid Facilities, or Left to Fend for Themselves


“I don’t have any money so I don’t have any way to help [my mother in Somalia]. This month I asked UNHCR to send me back to Somalia because I’d rather die with my mother. I told them, ‘If you won’t send me to another country, send me home.’ I do nothing all day. No classes, no job, it’s like my life is on embargo.” – 17-year-old refugee boy from Somalia who travelled to Indonesia alone and applied for refugee status with UNHCR, living in a migrant community outside Jakarta.

(Jakarta, June 24, 2013) – Indonesia detains and neglects migrant and asylum-seeking children, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Each year, hundreds are detained in sordid conditions, without access to lawyers, and sometimes beaten. Others are left to fend for themselves, without any assistance with food or shelter.

The 86-page report, “Barely Surviving: Detention, Abuse, Neglect of Migrant Children in Indonesia,” details Indonesia’s poor treatment of migrant and asylum-seeking children. They arrive in Indonesia after fleeing persecution, violence, and poverty in SomaliaAfghanistanPakistanBurma, and elsewhere. Indonesia detains hundreds of migrant and asylum-seeking children each year without giving them a way to challenge their detention. Indonesian law permits up to 10 years of immigration detention. 

“Migrant and asylum-seeking children risk life and limb to flee their countries and reach Indonesia,” said Alice Farmer, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Yet the port in the storm Indonesia offers is squalid detention facilities, where children waste months or years without education or hope for the future.”

Unaccompanied migrant children – who travel without parents or other adults to protect them – fall into a legal void. With no government agency responsible for their guardianship, no one responds to their needs. Some children languish in detention, while others are left on the streets, without the legal or material assistance to which they are entitled by law. 

Without a viable future, many migrant children – either alone or with their families – risk their lives on dangerous boat journeys to Australia. They typically board rickety boats organized by smugglers without adequate fuel; hundreds are thought to die on this crossing each year.

For this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 102 migrants between the ages of 5 and 66. 42 of our interviewees were children when they entered Indonesia. Human Rights Watch researchers met a number of government officials concerned with migration, and interviewed staff members of nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations. 

Both adults and children described guards kicking, punching, and slapping them or other detainees. Some reported that guards tied up or gagged detainees, beat them with sticks, burned them with cigarettes, and administered electric shocks. In one case, parents said immigration guards forced their children, including their 4-year-old and 6-year-old, to watch guards beat other migrants. Several unaccompanied boys told Human Rights Watch that Indonesian immigration guards beat them in detention. 

“That day I was beaten up very roughly,” a 15-year-old boy who had tried to escape from detention told Human Rights Watch. “There were eight or nine people beating me; most were guards and there was one person from the outside.”

Detention conditions fall far short of international standards: Centers are often overcrowded, unsanitary, and occasionally flooded. Children have next to no access to education and inadequate recreation time. Some children said they do not see sunlight for weeks at a time.

More than 1,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Indonesia in 2012. Many were detained with unrelated adults, at even greater risk of the violence and abuse that characterizes Indonesian immigration detention facilities.  

Almost 2,000 asylum-seeking and refugee children were in Indonesia as of March 2013, a number that has gone up each of the last five years. Indonesia has no asylum law and delegates its responsibility to determine who must be protected as a refugee to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Yet even when UNHCR recognizes people as refugees, Indonesia often refuses to release them from detention, and does not recognize them as having any legal right to be in the country. Even if released, refugees and asylum seekers, including children, face constant threat of re-arrest and further detention. 

Asylum seekers and refugees who are released cannot legally work or move freely around the country. Children have few prospects for gaining an education. Many wait months or years for UNHCR to process their cases. Only a small number are ultimately resettled to a third country.

The Indonesian government should stop detaining migrant children, clean up its detention facilities, and institute fair, thorough processing for asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said.

“Migrant children in Indonesia are trapped in a prolonged waiting game with no certain outcome,” Farmer said. “Desperate children will keep coming to Indonesia, and the government should step up to give them decent care.”
For select accounts from the report, please see below.

“Barely Surviving: Detention, Abuse, Neglect of Migrant Children in Indonesia” is available at: 

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on Indonesia, please visit:

For more Human Rights Watch reporting on children’s rights, please visit: