Australia has repeatedly flouted international law by locking up dozens of Indonesian teenagers in adult jails after they arrived as crew members on boats carrying asylum-seekers, according to the country’s Human Rights Commission.
In a damning report released by the commission yesterday, it said police, prosecutors and government officials used a wrist X-ray test to determine the boys’ ages even after the method was widely discredited. As a result, 15 minors were convicted of people-smuggling and incarcerated in adult prisons for nearly three years, while another 48 facing charges were locked up for more than a year.
“If that had happened to Australian children, I think the Australian public would be outraged,” the president of the human rights watchdog, Catherine Branson, QC, said yesterday.
The report’s publication coincided with news that an Australian lawyer, Peter O’Brien, is preparing to seek compensation for two Indonesian teenagers who were locked up in a Sydney jail for six months. The pair, who were 15 and 17 when they were arrested, have alleged that they were sexually abused and forced to take drugs by adult prisoners.
Many of the boys jailed in Australia between 2008 and 2011 were recruited by people-smugglers from impoverished fishing villages in Indonesia. Poorly educated and in some cases illiterate, they had no idea where the boats were heading and no inkling they were doing anything illegal.
The issue has been a long-running source of friction between Australia and Indonesia. The Australian government – which released 15 minors from prison last month after reviewing their cases – said yesterday that it now assesses age much more rigorously. About 50 other boys claiming to be under 18 have had charges dropped against them.
However, Ms Branson said the changes had come too late for children whose rights had been systematically trampled, and she urged the government to apologise. One reason for what had happened, she said, was “political and public pressure” on officials to be seen to be cracking down on people-smuggling.
Australian policy is to send home to Indonesia crew members who are obviously minors, rather than prosecuting them. However, in less clear-cut cases where young men insist they are under-age, the government has been “reluctant” to consider documentary evidence, according to the report. Instead, it relied on the X-ray test, which supposedly determines skeletal maturity. The test has been rejected by UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, and is banned in Britain.
The commission found that the government had repeatedly breached international conventions on civil, political and children’s rights. Mr O’Brien said that what his two clients had endured in prison was something no child should experience in a civilised country.