'Life of brutality' in crowded Indonesian lock-up
Simon Kearney, Tanjung Pinang, and Stephen Fitzpatrick, Jakarta
October 24, 2009
A TOTAL of 78 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers on board an Australian Customs vessel were to be transferred today to an Indonesian detention centre where detainees yesterday claimed they were beaten and robbed by guards, and slept 20 to a room on mattresses on the floor with no airconditioning.
With arms outstretched through the bars of their first-floor dormitory, above a string of razor wire, a group of Afghans who have already spent seven months in the Tanjung Pinang immigration detention centre on the Indonesian island of Bintan said they had been treated like “animals” and pleaded for Australia to help them. The Oceanic Viking, carrying 78 asylum-seekers, including a sick 12-year-old girl, was today expected to arrive near the Australian-funded detention centre. The vessel was diverted to Indonesia after an agreement was thrashed out between Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Mr Rudd told ABC1's 7.30 Report on Thursday the asylum-seekers' treatment would be “balanced and humane and fair” unlike the previous government which “had kids behind razor wire”.
But the detainees at the facility yesterday described a life of brutality instead of the freedom they had dreamed of attaining in Australia. Navad Hashimi, 20, from Kandahar province in Afghanistan, told The Australian of being locked in during the day and suffering night-time beatings.
“Sometimes the immigration people hit some of us during the night,” he said.
The beatings are punishment for the latest in a series of escapes from the centre, Sayad Nadyr, 34, from Daykundi Province in Afghanistan, said from the window of his cell.
“There is trouble, one person escape two weeks ago. At night time they come in here and punish us.”
Mr Nadyr said their money had been stolen after they were picked up about seven months ago. The group of men, one with his wife, are all from the Hazara minority in Afghanistan.
Mr Nadyr said they were heading to Australia when they were arrested trying to enter Indonesia.
“We heard that Australia is safe and the government would give nationality to us,” he said.
As he spoke, 16-year-old Haisum appeared beside him with a hastily penned note ripped from an exercise book and wrapped around a bar of green soap with a rubber band.
“I have petition,” he said as he threw the letter over the razor wire of the detention centre wall.
The letter, written in English with neat cursive handwriting, begins: “To, The Australian Government …
“I hope that you will be fine. Sir, we are more than 7th months in Tanjung Pinang detaining centre, like animals.
“We are under barbarity in Afghanistan as well as in here, they immigration beating at night if some of our friend being sick. No electricity, water for pray. Medical cure. Sir, by God – help us.”
Haisum didn't give his last name, just a Yahoo email address.
His room is shared with 18 men, all of them sleeping on the floor, Mr Nadyr said, standing next to the young man.
The asylum-seekers who had hoped for a better, safer life in Australia vied with each other for the rare chance to speak about their plight to the outside world.
“They don't allow us to go outside,” Mr Hashimi said.
“No have anybody building gym, we don't have any area for sport. We cannot have contact any with our family.”
Ali Madad, from Ghazni province, said there were some Sri Lankans in the centre, in another wing. He did not know if there was space for 78 more.
The centre was designed for 600 detainees and there are at present 84 inmates, according to Indonesian Immigration Department statistics. There have been numerous complaints from local officials that it is understaffed and escape-prone.
When we arrived early yesterday morning, mechanics were working on the centre's generator. It spluttered into life a couple of times and then failed again.
An official, who said he was the acting head of the local immigration service, told us we could not take photographs inside without permission from Jakarta.
The centre resembles a large high school except for the razor wire and bars on the windows. The front looks on to a busy suburban street and has newly built, three-storey high concrete walls and windows covered by awnings. There are two wings and a central block. There appears to be very little open space inside.
The descriptions of the interior by detainees bares only a passing resemblance to the way Department of Immigration and Citizenship deputy secretary Bob Correll described the facility on Tuesday during a Senate Estimates committee hearing.
“The overall accommodation tends to be more dormitory style than individual rooms as we would have in our detention facilities,” he said, in what appears to be something of an understatement.
The Tanjung Pinang facility has been plagued by escapes since it was first used in April this year, a situation the provincial immigration chief has put down to “construction mistakes”.
In June, at least 14 Afghan asylum-seekers fled the centre, and another four were discovered hiding in the ceiling waiting to lower themselves to the ground outside using sarongs looped together to make a rope.
“There have been problems with the detention centre's construction, which made it too easy for the refugees to climb into the ceiling,” Ajat Sudrajat Havid, the head of the Justice and Human Rights Department in the nearby town of Kepri, said.
At least one group of escapees – the Afghans fled in small groups over several nights – is believed to have been able to escape their locked room by forcing an inadequately installed latch. Others who remained in the centre after those escapes said at the time they were desperate to get out “because the guards often beat us and ask us for money”.
Another Afghan asylum-seeker who escaped last month did so by pretending he needed to vomit as a guard took him by car to see a doctor in Tanjung Pinang town.
According to the detention centre's head, Djunizar, 22-year-old Rahmatullah bin Ali Shah was able to make a quick getaway because of the slow reactions of his guard. “The officer guarding him let him out of the car, and he took that opportunity to escape,” Mr Djunizar said.
Regional chief Mr Havid also admitted the Tanjung Pinang centre was without electricity for at least seven hours each day, because of its reliance on a stand-alone 80kW diesel-powered generator. The use of such generators as backup facilities is common throughout Indonesia, which experiences chronic power shortages, but they are rarely used to provide 24-hour power.
The Tanjung Pinang centre is not connected as yet to the mains grid, and officials admit it has also not been equipped with basics such as telephones or fax machines, let alone an adequate number of staff to run at full capacity.
At a stone-laying ceremony for the centre in April last year, then-justice and human rights minister Andi Matalata said he hoped it could help Indonesia “increase the monitoring and legal action against (illegal) foreigners in this country. The issue of migration regulation is not just an issue for one country, but becomes a problem between nations … the matter must involve all parties connected with handling the irregular migration of foreigners.”
Mr Matalata retired this week with the swearing-in of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's new five-year cabinet. There are at least 13 detention centres across Indonesia, all run by the Immigration Department but with contributions to food, medical care and other facilities made by the International Organisation for Migration, which is partly funded by Australia.
Confidential Immigration Department figures show there have been 1642 irregular migrants arrested in Indonesia over the past 12 months.
The Tanjung Pinang centre was refurbished last year after the Department of Immigration and Citizenship gave $6.8 million to the IOM. It is supposed to have a staff of about 50.
In May this year a further $14.3m over two years, including $9.3m this financial year, was included in the budget papers, in part to fund the centre.
The money was delivered through the IOM and also sought to give the Indonesian immigration department new facial recognition capabilities.
There was no sign of any IOM officials at the centre yesterday.
In the town of Tanjung Pinang, a regional centre on Bintan, which is part of the Riau Islands close to Singapore, you only have to mention the word Afghanistan and people know you are talking about the detention centre.
The centre's most famous former inmate is Mas Selamat bin Kastari, the alleged terrorist plotter and former head of a Singapore-based Jemaah Islamiyah cell who escaped a high-security facility in Singapore in February last year and eluded a massive manhunt for nearly 14months.
He served 18 months in the centre for immigration offences and broke his leg in 2003 attempting to escape.
While Australia's detention centre on Christmas Island has had its share of critics, conditions there are far better than at Tanjung Pinang.
As of yesterday, Christmas Island held 903 asylum-seekers, after the arrival of 39 males, thought to be mostly Afghans, and three Indonesian crew, intercepted on Sunday night and delivered to Flying Fish Cove byHMAS Broome and HMAS Larrakia.
Detainees in Tanjung Pinang sleep on the floor with as many as 20 to a room, but most detainees at Christmas Island sleep two to a room, although two of the three activity rooms in each of the centre's eight compounds have now been converted to dormitories. Each compound has a communal fridge, which the Department of Immigration said was kept stocked with items such as bread and juice.
The new contractor running the centre, Serco, has introduced three meal choices for lunch and dinner each day, including one vegetarian option. Dessert and fresh fruit are also provided after lunch and dinner.
The inmates at Tanjung Pinang eat what they're given, and complain they do not have water for their ablutions before Muslim prayers, a requirement under Islam. At Christmas Island the men have access to a library, 20 internet terminals and can make international calls. At Tanjung Pinang they have no access to the outside world, except by yelling from their cell windows above the din of heavy traffic nearby.