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The grisly duty of a nun called 'Sister Cargo'

Helping repatriate hundreds of dead illegal migrants to Indonesia has earned Sister Laurentina an unwelcome nickname

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The grisly duty of a nun called 'Sister Cargo'

Sister Laurentina prays before a coffin containing a corpse of an illegal Indonesian migrant worker on July 15. (Photo courtesy of Sister Laurentina)

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Sister Laurentina can remember the precise number — 318 — of dead illegal Indonesian migrant workers she has helped repatriate over the last three years.

The grim work began for the 50-year-old nun from the Congregation of the Sisters of Divine Providence in April 2017 when she was sent by her provincial to Kupang, capital of predominantly Catholic East Nusa Tenggara province, to help victims of human trafficking.

The province has recorded the highest number of human trafficking cases in Indonesia, according to the International Organization for Migration. Of the more than 7,000 people allegedly trafficked, 82 percent of them were women, the group said. It was unclear how many of them died while overseas.

Activists say economic problems are the main driver behind human trafficking in the province, with 20.9 percent of its 5.4 million people living below the poverty line.

“Compassion is why I am interested in dealing with this distressing issue, particularly in this region,” says Sister Laurentina, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name. “Even in death, the dignity of these people must be respected.” 

Sister Laurentina has a long track record in helping the marginalized since adopting a monastic life in 1999 in Semarang, capital of Central Java province.

Back in 2007, after completing a diploma at the Kupang-based Social Work Academy, she joined the Semarang-based Soegijapranata Social Foundation and spent about three years dealing with street children. 

Three years later, she was sent by her provincial to Maubesi village in East Nusa Tenggara’s North Central Timor district. There, for the first time, she was asked by a group of activists to help arrange the return of the corpse of an illegal Indonesian migrant from Malaysia. Little did she know how often she would be called upon to carry out such work in the future.

In 2012, she took part in a week-long anti-human trafficking conference in South Sulawesi province, the lessons from which she used in her work in East Nusa Tenggara to make people aware of the dangers of going to work abroad illegally.

She decided to further her studies at the Social and Political Sciences Institute in Jakarta in 2014 and graduated three years later. In her spare time, she served as a volunteer for various groups including Sahabat Insan, a Catholic-run charity dealing with issues faced by Indonesian migrant workers.

“I knew a lot about human trafficking issues while in Jakarta,” said the nun, who originally hailed from Temanggung district in Central Java province.

“When I returned to Kupang, the first thing I did was meet the archbishop, who asked me to help the archdiocesan Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission.”

An unforgettable case

Sister Laurentina built a wide network with groups focusing on similar issues, including the International Organization for Migration and the Jakarta-based Migrant Care. Cases involving dead illegal Indonesian migrant workers often came up.

“During this time, the first corpse I helped repatriate was that of a man who died in a work-related accident in Malaysia. It was in October 2017. I ensured his body was returned to his village with government help,” she said.

Serving as “a bridge” connecting victims and their families, she had so far seen the return of 318 dead illegal Indonesian migrant workers since 2017. The causes of death varies from accidents, illnesses and even murder. 

Most cases occurred in Malaysia, while a few came back from Singapore.

On average, Sister Laurentina says it takes about a week to bring a corpse home by air cargo, but procedures have taken around a month more recently due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alas, the bodies are not treated with the respect they deserve, she says. 

“I remember receiving one person’s body that was supposed to be returned to Maumere on Flores island. The cargo service transporting the body listed the casket as a consignment of fish, which saddened and angered me,” she said.

Many of these cases involved the nun making long trips as many of the unfortunate souls came from remote areas. It’s a small price to pay if what she does is helping people, she says. 

Assisted by her so-called “Cargo Team,” Sister Laurentina says she has carried out this sad service so many times over a relatively short period that she has acquired an unfortunate nickname.

“The media are now calling me Sister Cargo, which I felt uncomfortable with at first. But on reflection that’s what I’m handling, albeit a sad and preventable one.”

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