Indonesian police on Tuesday announced the arrests of eight suspects in what they described as the biggest human trafficking case they had ever uncovered – a ring that smuggled more than 1,200 domestic workers to the Middle East and North Africa.
The suspects belonged to four syndicates that trafficked Indonesians to countries including Syria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkey, promising their victims lucrative pay as domestic help, national police spokesman Brig. Gen. Dedi Prasetyo told BenarNews.
But in reality, the victims did not receive their wages and were mistreated by their employers, he said.
“The number of victims could be higher as the investigation unfolds,” Dedi said but without revealing when the arrests took place. Local news organizations said they occurred in March.
The eight suspects face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty under a 2007 law on human trafficking, he said.
“This is the biggest case that the national police have uncovered,” Herry Nahak, chief of the national police’s criminal investigation unit, told reporters. Dedi echoed Herry’s claim in a statement posted on an official Twitter account.
Since 2015, Indonesia has imposed a moratorium on sending domestic workers to 19 countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The measure was taken following cases of abuse against female domestic workers from Indonesia.
The national police’s director-general for general crimes, Brig. Gen. Herry Rudolf Nahak, said police began investigating the case last month after the foreign ministry received reports from victims who managed to escape from their employers.
Initially, police arrested two suspects – identified as Mutiara bint Muhammad Abas and Farhan bin Abuyarman – on suspicion of trafficking people to Morocco.
“About 500 people have been trafficked by the two suspects,” Herry said.
The suspects recruited their victims from Sumbawa island in West Nusa Tenggara province, who were then taken to Lombok island and later to Batam near Singapore, before being taken to Morocco.
Another group, led by two women identified as Erna Rahmawati and Saleha, have trafficked people to Turkey, Herry said.
They have allegedly trafficked about 220 people since they began operating last year, he said. Herry Rudolf also did not specify the details of the group’s arrest.
“Most of the victims are from Bima in West Nusa Tenggara. They traveled via Jakarta, to Oman, then to Turkey,” he said.
Another group, led by Muhammad Abdul Halim, has sent 300 people to Syria and Iraq through Malaysia, authorities said.
The fourth group, led by Ethiopian men identified as Faisal Hussain Saeed and Abdalla Ibrahim Abdalla, trafficked people to Saudi Arabia with the help of an Indonesian woman named Neneng Susilawati, Herry said.
“Faisal is a refugee protected by the UNHCR, so he is free, and has not been deported,” said Herry, referring to the U.N. refugee agency.
“He also recruited several foreigners as employees,” he said.
Authorities believe that Herry has trafficked about 200 people from West Java and West Nusa Tenggara since 2014.
Indonesia is a major source of trafficking in persons, both cross-border and domestic, with a majority of the victims women being trafficked for work or sexual exploitation, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) .
The national police said at least 1,078 women were victims of human trafficking in 2017.
NGOs estimate that labor recruiters are responsible for more than half of Indonesian female-trafficking cases overseas, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Migrant workers often accumulate debt from Indonesian and overseas labor recruitment agencies, making them vulnerable to debt bondage, with some companies withholding documents and making threats of violence to keep migrants in forced labor, the report said.