Features | Politics | Society | Southeast Asia

A Crime Most Banal: Indonesia’s Human Trafficking Fix

Local governments are struggling to tackle human trafficking inside archipelagic Indonesia.

By Mark Wilson for

On the surface, Ira* seemed a normal 15-year-old Indonesian girl.

Her government carers warned me she could be aggressive toward strangers, but as I looked at her in the interview room, the walls of which were adorned with children’s pictures, I detected nothing of the sort. In fact, she appeared to be the exact opposite.

Hailing from a village close to the city of Sukabumi, West Java province, Ira seemed to fit the Javanese stereotype perfectly (the Javanese are the largest of Indonesia’s ethnic groups, comprising 40 percent of the archipelago’s 250 million people). She was calm and painfully polite. She had a voice so quiet and fragile I feared it would snap under the awkward weight of the questions I would ask. Then she had the trademark Javanese smile, emotionless, revealing nothing at all of the harrowing experience she had been subjected to just a few months earlier. Ira had been a victim of human trafficking, a crime that pervades Indonesia.

The 2000 United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of…coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power…for the purpose of exploitation.” Child trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation”.

A common perception of the crime is that it is something that takes place across borders, involving shadowy international crime syndicates that seize victims and then transport them to other countries where they are effectively enslaved. In fact, this is only half of the picture.

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The other half is trafficking that takes place within borders, where victims are ensnared by the familiar, recruited by their families, friends, neighbors – even their peers at school – and then trafficked to another part of the country where they are exploited. In Indonesia, this type of trafficking is a serious threat to human security.

In her short life, 15-year-old-Ira told me she had been trafficked twice – the first time by her neighbor, the second – shockingly – by her own husband.

The neighbor was a broker for a recruitment agency. He offered her a job in Jakarta as a babysitter for US$50 per month. Her parents, needing the money, thought she should go to help the family.

But upon arrival in Jakarta, Ira was deceived. The terms of her employment had changed. She was to be a full time domestic worker, cooking, cleaning and taking care of the employer’s children. She found the job tiring, with little sleep and with a salary half what she had been promised. She wanted to return home, but her employer refused – she could only return when she had repaid the fee her employer had given the broker for her services.

Trapped in debt bondage, Ira was forced to stay in Jakarta until she could pay off her employer, a situation that would expose her to the dangers of city life and lead to her second, more harrowing trafficking experience.

While paying her debt, she met and married a man in the local neighborhood. Once the debt had been paid, she returned with him to her village in Sukabumi to meet her family. Her husband soon insisted they return to Jakarta to live, which they did, but upon their return, her husband began to take her to bars and nightclubs, where he offered her to potential customers for sex – at a price.

Forced into becoming a sex worker by a man using marriage as a means to traffic, Ira was transferred to a government shelter for trafficked children only by chance, after customers in a bar questioned her age and alerted the appropriate organizations. She remains there today, receiving counseling.

Ira’s story is sadly one of many, part of a bigger picture of men, women and children being trafficked within and between Indonesia’s main islands of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku and Papua, finding themselves on the receiving end of exploitation in the sex, mining, agriculture, fishery and domestic servitude sectors.

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons report, internal trafficking is a “significant problem” in Indonesia.

“For trafficking across borders, people have to pass through the hands of several government agencies for this to happen,” said International Migration Organization Indonesia (IOM) chief of mission Denis Nihill. “But for internally trafficked people, they need not come to the attention of any officials whatsoever, so in many ways it’s a more alarming situation.”

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Faced with this, the Indonesian authorities – both at national and local levels – are struggling to prevent and prosecute the crime, as well as rehabilitate those who have fallen victim to it.

At the base of that struggle is lack of understanding about the size of the crime, a problem faced by governments the world over. In the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2012 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, UNDOC executive director Yury Fedotov noted that while there were millions of trafficking victims worldwide, there was still a need for comprehensive data on offenders and victims.

Indonesia is no different. Between 2005-2012, IOM Indonesia assisted 4873 victims of human trafficking. Jonhar Johan, assistant deputy for the protection of trafficking in persons at the Indonesian Women Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry, speaks of the crime as an “iceberg phenomenon”. Whatever data exists, there is much more of the problem out there.

Victims are often ensnared by those they know. Families, friends and neighbors play their part – unknowingly or knowingly – at the beginning of the internal trafficking chain. A 2011 IOM counter trafficking report said 31 percent of internal trafficking victims in Indonesia were recruited and trafficked by their friends.

Recruitment can be a lucrative business. Frontline workers in anti-trafficking organizations in Indonesia told me recruiters can be paid up to US$500 per recruitment by brokers working for agencies.

For Ahmed Sofian, national coordinator of ECPAT Indonesia, a anti-trafficking NGO, neighbors are the traditional way for agencies to recruit individuals that are then trafficked to other parts of Indonesia.

“Cases where the trafficked become the traffickers are also common,” said Sofian. “Most cases are sex workers, who have themselves been trafficked into that industry but are then paid by their pimps to go back to their villages and schools to recruit their friends and family members.”

Parents are also involved in recruitment, sometimes knowingly. A 2004 International Labour Organization report on child trafficking in Central Java noted cases of parents sending their children to work in the sex industry in order to pay off debts. Aid workers in West Java speak of similar attitudes prevailing today, where the practice of children working in the sex industry is acknowledged by parents, siblings and neighbors as a form of income.

Parents also play indirect roles in the trafficking process. Because of economic considerations, they push their children to migrate despite being aware of the dangers of trafficking. Santi Kusumaningrum, co-director of the Indonesian Center of Child Protection at the University of Indonesia, pointed to the notion of pasrah (submitting to one’s fate) as a factor in views of parents.

“It’s the belief that, while there are risks, these parents will be the lucky ones and their daughter will not be abused by her boss or exploited sexually,” she said.

On paper, Indonesia’s response to human trafficking within its borders has shown progress. In 2007, the government passed the Eradication of the Criminal Act of Human Trafficking Law, which introduced a maximum punishment of 15 years imprisonment for traffickers. In 2009, the government ratified the UN protocol on trafficking.

Soon after, the government created a national anti-trafficking taskforce, which brought together a range of government ministries and agencies to respond to the problem on the ground.

But barriers have materialized in rolling out the national taskforce at the local level. The government’s Johan said commitment “is not as strong as we [the central government] expect.”

Of Indonesia’s 497 districts, only 88 have established taskforces. Local governments’ lack of commitment to tackling human trafficking is underwritten by a lack of hard data on the crime, and as localities do not see a problem, they do not see a need to devote resources to it.

As a result, law enforcers in some districts lack the understanding to apply the national law, which later leads to confused prosecutions. Anti-trafficking NGOs point to a substantial gap between the scope of the crime itself and the number of traffickers behind bars.

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NGO such as IOM Indonesia are working to bridge the knowledge gap by helping to train up police officers, judges, lawyers, but these efforts are tempered by the size of the archipelago and, perhaps, by the attitudes of law enforcers.

ECPAT Indonesia’s Sofian said that in some localities police tolerated trafficking because of the local economies that grew around the brothels where victims were trafficked to.

“Around the brothels you will have locals providing security, or street vendors selling food,” he said. “Police also receive protection money from the brothel owners. Officers’ salaries don’t amount to much, so for them, this is good business on the side.”

Even in cases like 15-year-old Ira, where the victim is found, rehabilitated in a government shelter, and eventually returned to a home village, victims remain vulnerable to being retrafficked.

The government’s Johan said victims were offered cash assistance to help them reintegrate into their old communities, but when government workers visited to formalize the process, the victims were nowhere to be seen.

“Many trafficking victims are poorly educated. They only see the economic gains in working elsewhere,” he said. “There’s many cases of this, and of course traffickers like these kinds of people.”

And what of changing the attitudes of traffickers themselves – the friends, family members or neighbors that so often appear to set the trafficking trap in motion?

Johan said more awareness raising needed to take place, and that “one or two more generations” were needed before people’s attitudes to trafficking were changed.

In the meantime, a central driver of human trafficking – poverty – persists. It pushes Indonesians to migrate in search of better lives to the point where they become vulnerable to being trafficked and then retrafficked.

And with 32 million Indonesians living below the poverty line, Indonesians’ vulnerability to a problem their leaders cannot fix appears to have no end in sight.

*Not her real name

Mark Wilson is a freelance journalist based in Jakarta.