Indonesian leader orders crackdown on human traffickers after migrant deaths

Pizaro Gozali Idrus
Indonesian leader orders crackdown on human traffickers after migrant deaths Activists from Migrant Care protest to demand justice for Adelina, an Indonesian household worker who died in Malaysia in 2018, outside the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta, June 27, 2022.
Adek Berry/AFP

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ordered a crackdown on human trafficking syndicates Tuesday after officials revealed that nearly 2,000 of the country’s overseas migrant workers had died since 2020 because of abuse, accidents or illness. 

An average of two nationals have died every day during the past three years and some 3,600 others have returned home suffering from depression, memory loss or physical disabilities after being sent abroad illegally, the Migrant Workers Protection Agency (BP2MI) reported, citing data. 

“The president has ordered us to wage a war against these syndicates and we must not let the state be undermined or tolerate any form of crime,” BP2MI chairman Benny Rhamdani told reporters after attending a meeting with Jokowi.

He said his agency had handled 94,000 Indonesian migrant workers who were deported from the Middle East and Asia since 2020, and 90% of them had left Indonesia via illicit means.

Many of the workers were victims of abuse or exploitation by unlicensed recruitment agencies that sent them overseas without proper papers, medical check-ups or psychological tests, Rhamdani said.

“We have a problem with human trafficking where people are sent abroad and become slaves who are tortured or involved in crimes,” Mohammad Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, told reporters on Tuesday.

“Therefore, the president ordered the restructuring of the task force on human trafficking and to show the public that the police, the military and other government authorities can take swift action.”

He also said that the president had instructed police chiefs to crack down on security officials suspected of shielding human trafficking syndicates and making money off them.

“There is no backing for criminals. The state is backing justice and law enforcement,” Mahfud MD said.

Indonesia is one of the world’s largest source countries for migrant workers, with an estimated 9 million citizens working abroad in 2017, according to the World Bank. But only about 4.7 million are officially registered by the labor protection agency, meaning the rest could be exploited by illegal syndicates. 

Most of the Indonesian migrants are women who work in low-wage sectors such as domestic work and manufacturing. They mainly go to Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

During a summit hosted by Indonesia earlier this month, leaders of ASEAN states called for a regional approach to combating human trafficking and agreed on their first declaration on the dangers of online fraud.

The leaders noted “the increasing misuse of technology in facilitating human trafficking in Southeast Asia and globally, which is driven through misuse of social media and other online platforms.”

Last week, 46 Indonesian migrant workers returned home after being trapped in Myanmar and the Philippines and forced to work for online fraud companies.
They were among hundreds of Indonesians who fell victim to human trafficking syndicates that operate across Southeast Asia and exploit porous borders and lax law enforcement.

Authorities said the repatriation of more than 200 Indonesian trafficking victims in the Philippines would be done gradually.

‘The human trafficking mafia’

Netty Prasetiyani Aher, a member of a parliamentary commission on health and labor affairs, said human trafficking cases in Indonesia were “the tip of the iceberg.”

“The government must be more assertive in uncovering and eradicating the human trafficking mafia,” she said in a statement.

Netty urged the government to investigate and prosecute any official who might have roles in the trafficking.

“Sometimes, the human trafficking mafia involves rogue officers as their backers, so they can continue to operate despite the existing laws,” she said.

She expressed dismay at the number of deaths among migrant workers.

In its 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. State Department demoted Indonesia to the Tier 2 Watch List from Tier 2 because investigations of trafficking crimes fell for a fifth consecutive year and convictions had decreased for a fourth consecutive year.

One year earlier, Indonesia was praised for investigating, prosecuting and convicting recruitment agents linked to the forced labor of Indonesians aboard Chinese fishing boats. By 2022, official complicity in trafficking crimes remained a concern that the government failed to address, the State Department said.

“The lack of robust, systematized victim identification procedures continued to hinder the proactive identification of victims overall, particularly male victims, while the government’s protection services remained inadequate as they did not specifically address the needs of trafficking victims,” the report said.

Indonesia needs to investigate, prosecute and convict traffickers, including complicit officials who ignore, facilitate or engage in trafficking crimes, it said.


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