Thursday, October 27, 2011

In Indonesia and Around the World, Human Trafficking Casts a Long Shadow

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. It results in enforced waged labor, unpaid servitude and sexual exploitation. While many of us are angered by its existence, we are often unaware of how widespread and lucrative the phenomenon really is.

In 2008 alone, according to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, the business of human trafficking generated $31 billion and affected 2.5 million people across 127 countries. Out of 12.3 million forced labor victims worldwide, some 2.4 million were trafficked. To date human trafficking remains one of the world’s most profitable businesses, alongside the trade of illegal weapons and drugs. And while these figures are disconcertingly high, given the clandestine nature of the trade, figures are likely to be underreported and could reach much higher.

Human trafficking has been illegal since 1948. More recently, international awareness and abhorrence of this phenomenon has brought about punitive legislation. The UN Convention Against Trans-National Organized Crime, adopted in 2000, is currently the main international instrument used to fight this organized cross-border crime. The convention established the first definition ever of “trafficking of persons” in 2001, calling it “the acquisition of people by improper means, such as force, fraud or deception with the aim of exploiting them.” However, while the legislation does have serious consequences for those caught, human trafficking persists.

Just as rape victims, paradoxically, are often blamed for enticing their rapists, what do we say to those who blame the trafficked for “letting” themselves be trafficked? The reality is that no one chooses to be a victim of trafficking. The phenomenon is more pronounced among people facing extreme poverty, or where gender or ethnic discrimination is high. Poorer layers of society find themselves especially exposed as they search for any way out of their desperate poverty and succumb to a fallacious offer of a better life, better work or the possibility of resettling in a more prosperous country. All too often these opportunities are the doorway to an even more soul-crushing way of life than the one they left behind.

So while there is a growing awareness that slavery is wrong, and people would not knowingly offer themselves up into slavery, why is human exploitation and trafficking still a reality for so many marginalized people across so many countries, including Indonesia?

In 2011, Indonesia has been a major supplier of women, children and men trafficked for the purpose of forced labor and sexual exploitation. Indeed, according to Unicef, most of the trafficked women and children have been abducted against their will for commercial and sexual exploitation within Indonesia, but many are smuggled overseas too.

Illicit recruitment agencies often play a sinister role in this trafficking process. While most labor recruitment agencies — known in Indonesian as Perusahaan Jasa Tenaga Kerja Indonesia — are legal and follow the rules on labor export practices, a number of them are unlicensed and work outside of the law, and in reality operate similarly to illegal trafficking rings.

Using slick marketing tools, these agencies seem to offer a legitimate road out of poverty. The women are often so desperate to leave their impoverished situations that they borrow money, often from these agencies themselves, and fall immediately into a cycle of debt and bondage. They need to work to repay their debt, but the only work they are offered is in the form of involuntary and unpaid servitude, ultra-low wage work or work in the sex trade, ensuring they never can repay the debt and have to continue working for the agencies.

These agencies charge fees as high as $3,000, which the victims can rarely pay back. Confiscating passports ensures that women cannot run away and return home. Some manage to contact their family to pay back the money for them, which, in the rare instances in which they can, obliges the family to sell any meager assets they may have accumulated up to that point, or borrow more money from others, thus ensuring that the family is worse off than before.

In cases involving children, the State Ministry for Women’s Empowerment reports that efforts to retrieve children who are trafficked are not particularly successful. Adolescents that drop out of school are the most vulnerable. Trapped by poor education, poor economic conditions and little or no work opportunities, they are the first to fall prey to traffickers, especially those adolescents arriving in big cities. Often they are picked up off arriving buses and around bus stations, before they can develop any meaningful support networks. Tragically, others are kidnapped from their village or handed over by their own parents as repayment of a family debt, or to rid poor parents of another hungry mouth to feed. Others are lured with promises of well-paying jobs domestically or overseas.

Even though the House of Representatives has approved a bill to punish captured human traffickers, Indonesia has still not been able to stop the flow of people sold commercially by these highly organized and ruthless networks of criminals. Individual cases have been brought to justice, but the government has failed to take more large-scale traffickers to court, reflecting an overall weakness of the Indonesian system.

It also reveals flaws in Indonesia’s cooperation with neighboring countries, where most Indonesian women end up, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong and as far afield as the Middle East.

Given that most of these countries are members of Asean, with Malaysia topping the list of end destinations for Indonesian women in particular, according to the International Organization for Migration, what should we be doing, both as caring Indonesians and as concerned citizens of Asean?

At the individual level it is important to raise awareness among one’s neighbors and within one’s own family that stories of well-paying jobs that sound too good to be true, usually are just that. We should lobby the court system to give maximum sentences to traffickers and make an example of them. We should lobby our own representatives in the legislature and those in power along the now well-known trafficking routes to do their best to stop this trade, at least within their own spheres of influence. We should insist that better cooperation is undertaken at the Asean level using Asean-specific laws and protocols to ensure better chances of arrest and punishment.

Traffickers take advantage of Indonesia’s porous borders. Border areas like the Riau Islands, Kalimantan and some areas of Sulawesi that provide neighboring countries with a seemingly never-ending supply of new victims need special attention.

Human trafficking casts both a local shadow and a deeper, darker global shadow that requires global interventions. Starting at home, raising awareness among the wider public is critical, but improving conditions in the regions that supply most of those trafficked is also important.

Being secure and prosperous at home means potential victims are less likely to need to escape poverty. Lobbying is needed for those officials who are supposed to work in our interest, in the legislatures and in the court systems. Global connections need to be strengthened too. In 2007 the European Union and Asean agreed to cooperate on the joint fighting of organized crime and human trafficking. Also, several UN agencies are working closely with affected governments, including in Indonesia, and NGOs continue to play a crucial role. Seamless cooperation is the key.

It would seem we are all in the same boat, trying to overcome trafficking, but we need to row harder, and in the same direction if we are to make any headway.

By Akira Moretto deputy head of research at Strategic Asia Indonesia, a Jakarta-based consultancy that works to promote cooperation among Asian countries. Jakarta Globe

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