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Human trafficking a rising problem in Indonesia

Two deaths have led police to start investigating but they will have to unpick a complex tapestry of causes and solutions

Human trafficking a rising problem in Indonesia

Indonesian domestic workers who say they have fled from abusive employers spend their afternoon at a shelter inside the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur in this 2009 file photo. (Photo by AFP)

Yufrinda Selan's corpse was returned to her home in South Central Timor, Indonesia on July 17 bearing a number of bruises.

Her family were concerned about the condition of the body especially after Malaysian authorities had said she had hung herself.

Selan, 19 had been trafficked to Kuala Lumpur where she died. Her parents reported her missing on Sept. 2 last year.

"The family were looking for her without success," said Melky Musu, a relative, adding that the circumstances surrounding Selan's death was murky with officials unable or unwilling to divulge many details.

"The authorities must work seriously so that justice can be meted out on those who trafficked her."

Police have detained 16 people in connection with Selan's case which is just one of a rising number of deaths of trafficking victims originating from East Nusa Tenggara Province.

Tato Tirang, head of East Nusa Tenggara's Agency for Placement and Protection of Migrant Workers, said between January and July this year, 23 migrant workers died abroad, mostly in Malaysia. Most were illegal migrants.

Another was a young woman called Dolfina Abuk from Kotafoun. Her body was returned in April also bearing bruises leading her family to suspect she was the victim of foul play. Like in Selan’s case, the circumstances behind Dolfina’s death were unclear.

On Aug. 22, East Nusa Tenggara police uncovered seven human trafficking syndicates operating in the province (which includes Timor), netting 13 suspects. Provincial police spokesman, Jules Abraham Abast said that they were acting on reports made by victims’ families and activists in the last year.

The syndicates were responsible for recruiting 1,667 female migrant workers illegally and sending them to Medan in North Sumatra and Malaysia, according to Abast.

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"The suspects recruited and sent victims — usually aged 15-16 years-old — to their destinations, printing fake identity cards and birth certificates," he explained, adding that majority of them are employed as domestic workers.

Trafficked workers are prone to all kinds of abuse, from being underpaid to being physically brutalized by the people they work for but they cannot complain because of their illegal status, according to Divine Word Father Paulus Rahmat, executive director of Vivat International for Indonesia and a leading anti human trafficking campaigner in East Nusa Tenggara.

Some are even killed, while others take their own lives because they cannot take the abuse anymore and return as corpses like Selan and Abuk.

The price of trafficked workers ranges from Rp 4.5 million (US$ 340) to Rp 27 million, according to Abast. Tragically, it seems that prices are subject to the law of supply and demand. It usually depends on negotiations between agents who buy those workers from the brokers.

"It like selling cows at a market," Father Rahmat explained. "Brokers sell to the highest bidder with perpetrators looking to make as much profit as possible."

In fact, he continued, there is a trafficking group from Surabaya, in East Java, who even offered to exchange a car for 20 female workers.

The problem is poverty, said Father Rahmat. "Extreme poverty and unemployment forces them to look elsewhere and fall victim lucrative offers from traffickers," he said.

The province is a largely Christian area that is 54 percent Catholic and about 20 percent of the 4.9 million population live below the poverty line. Brokers see this poverty situation as an opportunity to poach people to work abroad, according to Father Rahmat.

"Although police have arrested some suspects the situation hasn’t improved," said Adrianus Magnus Kobesi, director of the Legal Aid Society in West Timor. "Brokers are still operating and seeking out new victims."

Weak government and lax law enforcement have exacerbated the problem, according to Kobesi. "Unfortunately, we have not seen a systematic attempt to remedy the situation," he said, adding that brokers from East Nusa Tenggara are linked with syndicates that operate in Java and Medan.

After researching villages in North Central Timor regency (a political subdivision smaller than a province), Kobesi’s organization found that 1,566 residents have gone abroad as migrant workers but admitted that the number is probably much higher. "We only collected data from 30 villages out of 197 in the regency," he explained.

In fact, he continued, according to government data, only 154 workers from the entire regency have gone abroad legally. "I cannot imagine how many migrant workers have left illegally," he said. "This is only one regency; we still don’t know what’s happening in the other 21 in this province."

Anti-trafficking groups believe the trade is allowed thrive by what they say are corrupt officials working hand in glove with criminal gangs.

As long as officials collude with traffickers it will be difficult to find a solution, according to Jack Fahik, coordinator of the Volunteer Network for Humanity, a group of student activists in Kupang, capital of East Nusa Tenggara.

"We see government officials working with brokers," he said without providing further details.

Abast agrees. "They [traffickers] have corrupt officials operating in their network," he said

Human trafficking will not be stamped out as long as law enforcement officials allow these networks to exist, said Kobesi of the Legal Aid Society in West Timor.

Many activists and victims' families fear that if changes in the way law enforcement is conducted are slow in coming, more people will go missing and more women like Selan will return home dead, he said.


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