It starts with a phone call to a middleman, and there are many, to help with the journey between Indonesia and Malaysia. The route is called "Jalan Tikus" or the "mouse trail." That's how it was for Ella (not her real name), a single Catholic mother in her late 30s. Life in West Timor was tough. There was little hope of earning a living let alone supporting her 7-year-old and ageing parents. Ella made the call in April. Her destination was neighboring Malaysia to find work as a housekeeper. She had done it before and saw it as her best option. The fee for the journey was 1,714,000 rupiah (about US$130). The last of her savings had dwindled. She was around $40 short so she borrowed the rest. Two days later, she was picked up by the middleman, who some would call a human trafficker, and was taken to a boat.
Lacking travel papers, and with authorities in both nations cracking down on illegal migrants, she traveled over two nights in black seas fraught with danger. Just two months earlier in February, news on both sides of the border was of a tragedy
when a similar boat had capsized drowning 10 passengers. Sheer determination to provide for her family drove her to disregard the risks that included arrest, exploitation and other privations. When she got to Malaysia, she found employment immediately. The pay was 800 ringgit (about US$200) a month. Now she is in Malaysia illegally and doesn't dare leave her employer's house even to go for Sunday Mass. "I don't want to take the risk. If I'm stopped [by the police] who will help me?" she says, and then answers immediately: "Nobody … I'm here to help my family. I don't want to be sent back with nothing." Her fears are warranted. Recently, a local newspaper reported
that police had arrested 33 migrants who were unable to prove they entered the country legally. Such raids are frequent and migrant workers speak of having to pay police and immigration officers varying sums to be freed. The asking price can be as high as 1,000 ringgit. Josephine, a legalized migrant worker from Indonesia, tells of one instance she had to pay 400 ringgit to get her undocumented teenage daughter released from police lockup. "A relative telephoned me and said my daughter had been detained in a raid. I panicked," says Josephine. "At the police station an officer in plainclothes asked me how much money I had. All I had was 400 ringgit. He said leave it on the table and wait outside. I did, and a short while later my daughter was released." She has since sent her children back to Indonesia to live with her mother. "I didn't know the church could help," she says when told she could have gone to the local parish for assistance. "No one told us," she says as her friends outside the church after Sunday Mass nod their heads in agreement. The group sit through two Masses for almost four hours every Sunday. The church is their sanctuary, a place for meditation and prayer as well as to catch up with friends and exchange stories. "I have nowhere else to go so I sit through two Masses. There are fans … it's cool and it helps pass the time," Josephine says. Her prayers are simple. "All I ask is for good health so I can keep working to provide for my family and keep us all safe." "God has been good to me. I am still working, my family is safe and my youngest daughter is going to secondary school now," she says proudly. In reality, it has not been easy. Josephine has been working in Malaysia for over 10 years with a short trip back to Indonesia three years ago after being forced to switch employers. She misses her youngest daughter now aged 13 years. "I didn't see her grow but I'm happy I can help her continue studying," she says. Now in her mid-40s, the single parent is grateful she has a job despite her employer treating her with disdain. Josephine starts work at 4 a.m. and stops at 9:30 p.m., six days a week for a salary of 800 ringgit. Her employers, a Catholic family, told her she could get a pay rise of 50 ringgit if she agreed to take only two days off a month. Being able to communicate with her family weekly and being allowed Sunday off to attend Mass is a comfort she is unwilling to forego. Like Ella, she is one of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from around the ASEAN region, Bangladesh and China who have flocked to Malaysia over the years to do menial jobs that offer little protection from exploitation. Despite their situation, both consider themselves lucky. Conditions for migrant workers are generally poor across much of the country where salaries and working hours are unregulated. Church workers in Malaysia say they have taken to heart Pope Francis' appeal to "to reawaken our consciences" on the plight of migrant workers and displaced people. But for people like Ella and Josephine, having been let down for so long, they are too scared to approach anyone for help. They will continue to suffer in silence.
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