Indonesian police unload the bodies of victims after a boat carrying nearly 100 suspected migrant workers capsized and sank off Batam in Nov. 2, 2016. Catholic priest Chrisanctus Paschalis Saturnus is leading a church mission to combat human trafficking in Riau Islands province, a transit hub for illegal workers heading to other countries. (Photo by Sei Latifa/AFP)
Fighting human trafficking has become a daily routine over the last five years for Father Chrisanctus Paschalis Saturnus, a priest in Indonesia's Pangkalpinang Diocese.
Working in Batam — a transit hub for illegal workers in Riau Islands province, about 30 kilometers south of Singapore — makes human trafficking problems part of the priest's daily regimen. They are also the diocese's main priority.
"[New] cases are always popping up and do not seem to end," said the 38-year-old priest, who is commonly known as Father Paschal.
Since 2013, he and his team have rescued at least 500 victims. They are generally women and children hired to become domestic workers in other countries, particularly Malaysia, the chairman of the diocesan commission for justice, peace, migrant and itinerant people said, adding that some were recruited to become sex workers in Batam.
"They don't have documents and are deceived by recruiters with the lure of big salaries," he said, adding that many cross to Malaysia illegally by boat.
According to government figures, 1.7 million out of six million Indonesians working abroad are illegally recruited and are likely arbitrarily exploited by their recruiters and employers.
Father Paschal says more than 50 percent of victims he has helped were from the Christian-majority province of East Nusa Tenggara. In recent years, the province has recorded the highest number of trafficking cases in Indonesia.
In 2014, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) recorded around 7,190 people from the region were victims of trafficking.
"Victims are generally recruited by people who are known to their families," the priest said. "But above them are the big players who are difficult to catch."
Efforts made by Father Paschal and his team chasing recruiters have not been in vain. At least 10 perpetrators have been imprisoned over the last five years and are serving jail terms of between one to nine years.
But in many cases rescued victims just prefer to be sent home and left alone rather than pursue legal action against their recruiters.
Father Chrisanctus Paschalis Saturnus (second left) has been taking on human traffickers in Indonesia's Riau Islands for the last five years. (Photo supplied)
Confronting the police
This kind of work has called for Father Paschal and his team to adopt a very direct approach against recruiters, which has sometimes meant mounting their own raids on properties to rescue trafficked people, because of police inaction.
As such, it has meant him having to confront uncooperative police officers not willing to assist in cases reported to them.
He recalled one case in 2016 where he received a call for help from a female migrant worker who managed to flee from a house in Batam. She told him that dozens of other women were still locked up there.
Receiving no help from police, the priest said he and his team immediately took it on themselves to raid the house and rescue the victims.
According to the priest, lack of cooperation from police is an all too familiar occurrence, which has led him to believe that local officials such as policemen are in cahoots with the traffickers.
"It's no secret … many officials are," he said, adding that relations with the police have been strained at times, especially with those he says try to cover up cases.
In July, Father Paschal said he reported a high-ranking police officer in Riau for protecting a trafficker who was a relative of a well-known businessman in Batam. "He refused to arrest him. This was an injustice, so I reported him," he said.
It paid off when a police team from another unit conducted an investigation and arrested the suspect on Aug. 9.
Investigating human trafficking is hardly a one-man mission, according to Father Paschal, adding that his mission also involves many lay people.
There are 20 volunteers who actively work with him and parishioners in Batam are asked to contact them if they come across anything suspicious. "By involving them, I want to remind them that this is part of the church's mission," he said.
Beyond the pulpit
Raenhad Pius Simanjuntak, one of his team, said he is very impressed with Father Paschal's courage.
"His drive encourages me to do more against human trafficking," he said. "Our church needs more priests like him, fearlessly dealing with criminals and taking on those who have power and money."
Gabriel Sola, chairman of the Working Group Against Human Trafficking, said he also admires Father Paschal's zeal in helping human trafficking victims.
"He has brought the church closer to ordinary [and suffering] people," he said. "We work together in dealing with smuggled victims. Every time we contact him, he is always enthusiastic."
Father Paschal says his mission is the realization of Christ's mandate. "He has instructed us to be useful for the world, for the marginalized, including victims of this crime [trafficking]," he said.
He hopes the church will step up its efforts in combating human trafficking. "The Indonesian Church has done a lot, but we must act faster and do more if we are to prove a match against the criminals."