Human Trafficking, Migrant Labor Often Linked in Indonesia

By David McKeeby
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - For Wayhu Susilo, founder of an Indonesian nongovernmental organization (NGO) to help migrant workers, human trafficking is a trap too often encountered by Indonesians in their struggle to provide for their families.

“I felt close to the problems of migrants and trafficked persons, because the victims are people who are close to me,” Susilo told USINFO in a June 5 interview, after being recognized by the State Department as a hero working to end modern-day slavery.  Susilo is among eight people so recognized this year in the annual Trafficking in Persons Report.

“I was a part of them because they are poor and I was a poor child,” Susilo said.  “I was fortunate to be able to attend school through higher education, but there are certainly many more people who were not as lucky as me.  And some of them become migrant workers and human trafficking victims.”

More than 2.5 million Indonesians from poorer regions support their families every year by traveling overseas seeking work as domestic servants and laborers.  Most work in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, but hundreds of thousands of others also can be found in Singapore, Japan, Syria, Kuwait, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Some of these individuals find work through officially sanctioned recruiting agencies.  But Susilo estimates that more than half of would-be migrant workers bypass these programs for the deceptive ease of working through less reputable recruiters who, like traffickers the world over, confiscate passports, trap would-be workers with exorbitant loans to travel abroad and force them into laboring in dangerous and abusive work environments in a futile effort to repay their unmanageable debts before sending money home to their families.

In 1996 and 1997, Susilo made his first stand for workers' rights on behalf of a group of migrants who returned to Central Java, Indonesia, after being seriously injured by their employer in Saudi Arabia.  Susilo also was active in the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, an international coalition of NGOs based in Bangkok, Thailand.

“I realized that migrant workers actually don’t have means of legal protection,” said Susilo, who worked with colleagues to draft legislation to protect the workers.

Susilo soon realized, however, that for any migrant protection law to work, monitoring and advocacy would be needed.  In 2000 he formed the Consortium of Indonesian Migrant Workers, and in 2004 he established Migrant CARE, which documents the challenges facing Indonesian migrant workers and fights trafficking by campaigning for stronger government regulations on employment agencies.

Susilo’s strategy for making a difference is encapsulated in Migrant CARE's name, which stands for Counseling, Advocacy, Research and Education (CARE).

The efforts of Indonesian NGOs like Susilo’s gained ground following the “Nunukan tragedy” in 2002, when 350,000 undocumented migrants were deported from neighboring Malaysia.  A humanitarian crisis quickly developed when migrant arrival centers proved unable to provide for the surge of returnees, resulting in starvation, disease and 85 deaths.

Yet despite his success in revealing the challenges facing the country’s migrant laborers and victims of trafficking, governments still do not fully appreciate the role of NGOs in advocating for workers’ rights, often viewing them as “troublemakers,” Susilo said.

Migrant CARE has raised public awareness by documenting thousands of cases in which Indonesian workers have faced severe physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their foreign employers.  Thousands of others have disappeared abroad, and Susilo’s organization has actively lobbied the government of Indonesia to locate these missing workers.

Susilo's organization also is among a growing number of NGOs that are shedding light on the uncomfortable realities of life in today’s Indonesia that contribute to mistreatment of migrant workers and can facilitate human trafficking.  Traffickers buy off corrupt officials at the national and local levels while law enforcement agents and other representatives have been convicted of soliciting bribes from migrant laborers at virtually every step of their journey.

This year Indonesia passed a comprehensive law against trafficking in persons.  Although this is a positive step forward, Susilo said, the success of such reform will ultimately depend on continued advocacy and engagement by NGOs, close supervision of recruiting agencies and the political will of legislators and law enforcement officials to enforce the law.

The 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report is scheduled to be released on June 12.

For additional information, see 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report.