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Q&A: CWS provides alternative to detention for lost refugee children in Jakarta

News Stories, 27 January 2014

© UNHCR/M.Salima Suryono
Michael Koeniger, the CWS representative in Indonesia.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, January 27 (UNHCR) In recent times, the number of refugees and asylum-seekers turning up at UNHCR's office in Indonesia has leapt from 385 five years ago to 7,218 last year. They arrive from all over in search of safety and security or simply looking for a better life. The bulk of these people come from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Iran, but the countries of origin are many. Some have the legal right to visit, while others make their way into Indonesia by irregular routes they are liable to detention if caught. As the number of those coming to UNHCR's office has grown, so has the number being held in Indonesian immigration detention facilities. They include children with their parents, and unaccompanied minors. UNHCR figures show that in October last year, about 6 per cent of the almost 11,100 registered refugees and asylum-seekers were unaccompanied minors from several countries, and more than 100 of them were being held in 13 detention centres across Indonesia. On release, they are referred by immigration officials to UNHCR. The refugee agency's implementing partner, CWS (Church World Service), provides the youngsters with vital shelter, food and care while their asylum claims are being processed. It's a vital job. Michael Koeniger, the CWS representative in Indonesia, talked with UNHCR Public Information Officer Mitra Salima about his organization's work in Indonesia. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us a bit about the work you do with UNHCR

CWS is a relief, development and refugee assistance agency based in New York. We have been working in Indonesia for over 40 years and we have been one of UNHCR's implementing partners since 2008, working on urban refugee programmes in and around Jakarta. These programmes provide assistance to recognized refugees and, in exceptional cases, vulnerable asylum-seekers referred to CWS by the UN refugee agency. The assistance includes a monthly subsistence allowance; access to health services and education, particularly for children; psycho-social support; various training courses in our refugee centre or through third party providers; and sport and recreational activities, particularly for unaccompanied minors living in two shelters operated by us.

How many unaccompanied children do you care for?

As of today [in late November], we are hosting 55 minors in two shelters and all of them are boys. Although each . . . has their own story and experience; they tend to have a similar reason for being without their parents. For example, the families of the boys who came from Afghanistan and Pakistan the [ethnic] Hazara minors normally send them away to a safer place because they are the ones most at risk of persecution [in a country where conflict exists]. What's more, families are more likely to send boys rather than girls to travel alone because the journey can be long and challenging.

Do you have children here who were previously held in a detention centre?

Yes, there are quite a few. Some of them have spent several months in immigration detention centres. That includes the Kalideres detention centre in Jakarta as well as other parts of Indonesia, like Surabaya. We work very closely with UNHCR and staff from Indonesia's immigration office to ensure a smooth transfer [of the children] to us. CWS picks up the children from the detention centre and takes them to the shelter with an immigration staff member as escort.

Do any of the children arriving in your shelter face mental health issues?

Everyone has a different personality and level of resilience; one person might be able to handle tough experiences better than others. Although we can't really generalize . . . it is true that [being in detention] can create a negative impact psychologically. Not all adults can handle the pressure of living inside the immigration detention centres, let alone children that are missing their parents or close relatives. Being detained for a long period of time and often held together with adults is not a good situation from a child protection perspective.

How do you feel about the use of detention for children?

Looking at the psychosocial impact, our preference is of course not to have minors held in detention. And under the new Indonesian law on immigration, unaccompanied minors should be released but there needs to be an alternative to detention. Today, we are one of the very few organizations that, with support from UNHCR, provide [rooms in] shelters as an alternative to detention. The government would release more minors from detention centres if only there were more shelters available. For the time being the biggest constraint is budget. With our current budget, we can only operate two shelters in Jakarta.

How do the children cope with being refugees?

They are young people; the main concern for many is being away from home and separated from their families. Most of them worry about their future. In Indonesia, most want to be resettled in Australia and they can't wait to resume their studies or find work there. That's why having to wait in Indonesia while their claim is being assessed or their case is being submitted for resettlement, feels like a waste of time for them.

What are your main concerns when dealing with unaccompanied minors?

Child protection is the most important aspect that we need to think about. That's why minors in detention should be released. As minors, they need to grow but they need a safe place to grow. The shelters that we provide offer them security and an opportunity to develop. There are different kinds of informal education programmes and activities, such as language courses and sports, aimed at helping them prepare for their future. We also provide access to health care and psycho-social support, as well as counselling specialists.

How important is the support of UNHCR to your work?

The support from UNCHR is absolutely vital and, as implementing partner, we rely on their support. At the operational level, together with UNHCR among others, we provide counselling to the people we assist. In addition, we work together in capacity building initiatives, so that we continue to improve our services to refugees and asylum-seekers in and around Jakarta.

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