In August 2016, Tyas Weningsih Putri left her village in Kendal, Central Java to try her luck for the second time as a migrant worker in Malaysia.
She had been recruited to work in a birds’ nest cultivation factory and expected to receive 900 ringgit salary per month, as stated in her contract.
There were 152 other women who left with her to work in Malaysia. But she soon sensed something was not right when she found that things were not the same as written in her contract.
“I became suspicious there was a legal violation when I received my ID card. The address stated was in Shah Alam, but the factory location was in Klang. I knew it was not right because I had worked in Malaysia before,” Tyas said.
“Other things were also different from what we had been promised, such as accommodation in a room with free air conditioning and WiFi. We had to pay to get a room with air conditioner.”
Her salary was also deducted whenever her supervisor spotted a mistake or when she took sick leave, and she ended up receiving only 200 to 400 ringgit on her payday.
She had no idea that she and the other 152 women as well as three from Myanmar had become victims of human trafficking until Malaysian authorities raided the factory in March 2017.
Tyas said at first she was surprised and relieved by the raid, thinking that help had finally come. But she was in for another hurdle when she was sent to jail for two months for an immigration violation because the address on her ID card was not the same as the factory location.
“We were told that we were victims of human trafficking but the police told us that we still had to go to jail for the immigration violation, even though it was the company’s fault,” said the 24-year-old who know works for a garment factory in her hometown.
She and her fellow workers were released from jail and immediately sent home in May 2017.
“I was still handcuffed when they took us to the airport. I was released only after my baggage was checked in,” she said.
Tyas was one the 1,083 victims – including five minors – of human trafficking groups with network to Malaysia, China and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Syria that the Indonesian police busted in last year.
Head of the national police’s criminal investigation unit, Comr. Gen. Ari Dono Sukmanto said 60 percent of the victims were bound for the Middle East, and 39 of them, who had been promised to work as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, were repatriated from Kuala Lumpur in May after they were abandoned by their recruiter.
The group departed from Surabaya in East Java to Pontianak in West Kalimantan and took the overland trip across the border in Entikong into Sarawak on peninsular Malaysia, after which they flew to Kuala Lumpur.
“They were stranded in Kuala Lumpur airport for two days until our embassy personnel picked them up. It turned out that they were going to Saudi using a pilgrimage visa instead of working visa,” Sukmanto said.
The traffickers travelled via Malaysia because Indonesia’s 2015 moratorium to send migrant workers to Saudi Arabia and 20 other Middle Eastern countries are still in place. Still, it is common for Indonesians to use pilgrimage visas to travel to Saudi Arabia to look for work.
“The recruiters made them detoured via Malaysia to make the workers’ trip less suspicious,” Sukmanto said during a press conference in late December.
Indonesia and Malaysia share a porous 2,004 kilometer land border in Kalimantan that makes movement of people between the two countries difficult to monitor.
Foreign Ministry’s director for Indonesian protection abroad, Lalu Muhammad Iqbal told Asia Focus that entering Malaysia via Entikong is common practice among human traffickers.
“They were recruited to work in Saudi Arabia but then they were transferred to conflict-torn countries like Syria or Iraq,” Iqbal said.
National police chief General Tito Karnavian said in a year-end press conference on Dec 30 the police force handled 92 human trafficking cases involving transnational groups in 2017.
“The number of cases and conviction on human trafficking decreased this year from 212 case in 2016,” Karnavian said.
The US State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report lists Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore and Vietnam in Tier 2, which means that governments in these countries do not fully meet the minimum standards of Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.
Despite the list, Asean member states are committed to combatting human trafficking. A regional instrument to promote closer cooperation in combatting human trafficking was signed by the region’s leaders in Nov 2015 at the 27th Asean Summit.
Nine out of ten members have ratified the legally-binding Asean Convention Against Trafficking in Persons (Actip). Brunei is the only member that still hasn’t ratified the instrument.
Director of advocacy group Migrant Care, Wahyu Susilo said these cases highlighted just how vulnerable Indonesian migrant workers are to various rights violations.
Susilo said what happened with Tyas highlighted Malaysian authorities’ “discrimination on enforcing the law” because Tyas and her fellow workers still had to serve time in prison for being undocumented.
The moratorium has also been ineffective as Migrant Care has found that the flow of migrant workers to the Middle East continues.
“In January and February 2017, Migrant Care received a report that there were about 300 female workers who were kept in confinement in Riyadh. Most of them were from West Nusa Tenggara and were sent there when the moratorium is still in place,” Susilo said.
He added the moratorium, which was imposed following the beheading of an Indonesian woman convicted of murder, only triggered an opportunity for human trafficking syndicates, apart from also violating citizens’ rights to move freely to work, given the high demand from destination countries and high supply from Indonesians willing to migrate to look for better jobs abroad.
According to him, as long as the kafalah system or a visa sponsorship that ties migrant workers’ legal residency to their employers’ locations, is not abolished, the Middle East would remain an unwelcoming destination for migrant workers.
“The government has to respond to this by negotiating for bilateral agreements and demanding the destination countries in the Middle East to enforce better protection for migrant workers and abolish the kafala system,” Susilo said.
The Saudi ambassador to Indonesia, Osama bin Mohammed Al-Shuaibi told journalists in December that he hoped the Indonesian government would soon lift the moratorium.
“I hope the workers can go there again for the good of both countries,” he said, adding that Indonesians were preferred in his country since most are Muslims and are quick to adapt with what their employers’ want.
The story first appeared in Bangkok Post