Two years ago, Didi and Putra were just like millions of other working teens, living in two different parts of Indonesia and trying to make ends meet.
But after both fell victim to bogus, high-paying job offers from people-smuggling syndicates, they met each other in the most unlikely of places: an immigration detention center in Australia.
The two teenagers, whose names have been changed to protect their identities, recently told the Jakarta Globe about being tricked into transporting illegal migrants to Australia and their time in a foreign detention center and prison.
Didi, now 17, dropped out of school in seventh grade and was working as a crew member on a cargo vessel in South Sumatra in November 2010 when an acquaintance offered him a similar job paying Rp 25 million ($2,650) for a week’s work.
The salary was tempting, especially compared to his weekly earnings at that time of just Rp 400,000.
Didi went to Muara Angke in North Jakarta to start his new job. He was told to leave his identity card and belongings behind before boarding the boat, which was already loaded with food and water.
The boat left on a Friday at dawn, Didi said, but just off Tanjung Priok Port another boat approached it and a man came on board before they continued to sail east.
“While he was on board, the man told the crew something about following a charted course and the GPS,” Didi said.
Didi, who hails from Central Java, later realized the vessel had dropped anchor off Indramayu, West Java, when he noticed the lights from an oil refinery that he always saw while traveling home by bus.
“It was already dark when two small boats approached, from which nine big men boarded our ship, while the man who boarded near Tanjung Priok disembarked, leaving the ship to me and two other crew members,” he said.
“Soon after that, the ship changed its course back westward and we sailed on without any lights on.”
The weather was severe, he said, with such large waves as they sailed past Ujung Kulon, on the western tip of Java, that the food supplies were ruined and they were forced to eat moist bread and raw sardines.
“One of the passengers, an Iraqi man, was very nosy and kept asking how close we were to our destination,” Didi said.
A storm raged and shook the ship through the waves, he added, when “suddenly a tall gray wall came into view.”
“It turned out to be the hull of an Australian Navy ship,” he said.
Didi learned they had illegally entered Australian waters when an officer boarded the boat and handed him a notice in Indonesian saying he had breached Australia’s maritime border.
The other passengers appeared pleased, he added.
“An interpreter from the immigration [office] told me that I would be taken into custody for a long time,” Didi said.
Putra, born in 1995, had a similar story. In October 2010, he was making a living as a domestic worker in Sukabumi, West Java, when a friend offered him a six-month stint as a crew member with weekly pay of Rp 40 million.
The two boys said they met in Darwin’s detention center, where they were both transferred after being held for almost 10 months at the Christmas Island immigration detention center. They were later transferred to a prison in Sydney.
“There was a block in the Christmas Island detention center where the occupants were all Indonesians,” Didi said, adding that he met about 14 other Indonesian minors at the Darwin detention center.
Didi said an interpreter was always present during questioning on Christmas Island, and he was told that he faced people-smuggling charges.
“I denied the charges but the investigators insisted I had been found guilty of reaching Australia with the boat and the passengers,” Didi said.
“I had no idea the process would take so long; I thought it would take a week or so and I could go home.”
It was in Darwin that both boys had X-rays taken of their wrists, a procedure they say identified their ages inaccurately.
Just two days before they were transferred to Sydney, the X-ray results were released. Putra was determined to be 18 years old, while Didi’s age was estimated as 20.
They were incarcerated in New South Wales’ Silverwater Correctional Center pending their legal processes.
Both claimed they spent time locked up with hardened criminals in a high-security prison block or an isolation room.
During their incarceration, Didi and Putra worked in the prison’s workshop by sewing blankets and towels, a job that paid 20 Australian dollars ($21) per week.
They said they were finally acquitted in December last year after their Australian lawyers presented evidence collected from their villages, including their birth certificates, pictures of their homes and families, and testimonies from their village chiefs and families.
Of 415 Indonesian boat crew members facing people-smuggling charges in Australia, 36 are believed to be minors who are being detained in Australian prisons and immigration centers, Foreign Ministry spokesman Michael Tene said at a press briefing on Friday.
“Two of them are on trial to ascertain their ages, while 18 others are still detained in immigration centers,” he said.
The Australian government has agreed to discontinue the use of wrist X-rays to determine the minors’ ages, he said, and would use supporting documents such as birth certificates instead.
“They [detainees] will also be given the benefit of the doubt,” Michael added.
“They’ll be temporarily assumed as minors and not incarcerated with adults until proven otherwise.”