The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Too young – or too unimportant?                         

Yasmin Ali is now home in Flores telling family and friends about his extraordinary experiences in Perth, the booming capital of Western Australia, and Albany a small holiday town on the State’s south coast.

Unfortunately the teenager’s accounts, garnered over two years, aren’t littered with tales of fun on sun-soaked beaches or happy times in a prosperous society that respects human rights.  Instead his tales are about life in two jails.

For back in 2009 Yasmin, then 13, was arrested when the Indonesian fishing boat he was helping crew arrived at Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.  It was laden with 55 Middle Eastern asylum seekers.

Under Australian law Yasmin faced a mandatory five-year jail sentence unless he could prove that he was under 18.  He couldn’t.  Indonesian kids picked up by the people smuggling mafia in Jakarta to work as deckhands don’t carry passports and birth records.

Even if they did have wallets stuffed with certificates the Australian Federal Police wouldn’t accept them as valid, assuming that all Indonesian documents are false unless proved otherwise.

Instead the police X-rayed Yasmin’s wrists using an 80-year old technique that links bone-growth rate to age.  The scans are measured against an atlas of white middle class children from the US.

Medical experts have been rubbishing the system as inaccurate and inappropriate for Asians.  But the AFP refused to change its policy till late last year when a court in Queensland threw out charges because it believed the defendants were underage.

By then around 24 kids like Yasmin were already sharing space with violent criminals and paedophiles.

A visitor to the Albany jail on other business noticed Yasmin and was convinced he looked too young to be banged up in an adult prison. 

He raised his concerns with Ross Taylor, the founder of the Perth NGO Indonesia Institute and a former WA Trade Commissioner in Jakarta.  He started speaking up in the media about the boat kids, claiming they were the unwitting dupes of ruthless criminals and should be repatriated, not prosecuted.

Sadly his campaign wasn’t greeted with widespread applause.  There’s no sympathy for people smugglers in Australia; former Foreign Affairs minister Kevin Rudd labelled them the ‘scum of the earth’.  Few in the public were prepared to differentiate between the godfathers in Jakarta and deckhands in Nusa Tenggara.

There’s been little understanding of the realities of Indonesian village life where poor fishermen are prepared to take great risks for the promise of high wages and a short voyage.  They aren’t told the trips are one way, the journey is hazardous and the cops are waiting for survivors.

Australian lawyers and reporters sought proof that boys like Yasmin were minors.  However school records, letters by village officials and statements by relatives all failed the AFP’s test of verifiable documentation. 

Nonetheless Mr Taylor, journalists and others kept hammering at the Australian government and public opinion. Indonesian diplomats in Australia eventually started trying to obtain convincing paperwork.

At last their efforts have yielded some success.  Federal Attorney General Nicola Roxon released Yasmin and two other children.  They were immediately deported last Friday.  (18 May)  Age verification is now the responsibility of Immigration, not the AFP.

A Federal Parliamentary inquiry into underage prisoners initiated by the Greens is underway, and there’s talk among human rights lawyers about the children suing the Government for wrongful imprisonment.

Many factors complicate the issue.  The lack of an efficient and universal system of recording births and issuing certificates that can be checked against a centralised registry in Indonesia doesn’t help.

Nor does the poor education of village boys who are ignorant of international law and politics and foreign legal systems so have to rely on others for advice. Although Yasmin had free legal aid he pleaded guilty.

Australian judges slamming the cell doors shut say tough sentences are deterrent, sending clear messages to others. 

They don’t.  If they did the boats would stop coming.  So far this year 35 Indonesian vessels carrying more than 2,500 asylum seekers have been caught in Australian waters

Some deckhands don’t know their age or get confused under questioning. It’s alleged Yasmin originally said he was born in 1990.  Others just want to stay with their older mates.

There’s no doubt the ‘scum’ running the refugee boats know that using kids as crew means many are likely to be deported.

While freedom can’t be compromised and locking kids in adult jails is unconscionable, the ugly irony is that living conditions in Australian prisons can be better than in some Indonesian villages. Inmates are well fed and have access to free medical care and education.

There are reports that Yasmin is now so fluent in English he’s been acting as an interpreter for other Indonesian prisoners.

Why did it take a small lobby group and the media to goad the Australian government into action?  Why didn’t the Indonesian authorities, backed by an outraged public and pushed by probing journalists, loudly demand that the Republic’s young and vulnerable citizens be immediately repatriated?

That’s what happened last year when a 14-year old Australian boy spent several weeks in custody in Bali after being arrested on drug charges.  The howls of protest were so shrill Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard even spoke to the youth by phone when he was in custody telling him that everything possible would be done to get him home.

There’s no record of Indonesian ministers contacting Yasmin and his teen friends with similar assurances.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa has reportedly said a regional solution is needed to fix the mess.  A good starting point would be for Australia to stop its hypocrisy and Indonesia to stop the people trafficking mafioso. 


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