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Human trafficking and Indonesia

26 February 2012

People fleeing from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq often pass through Indonesia as they try to reach Australia. It’s like people from Mexico and countries farther south crossing the border into the United States. They pay large sums to shady operators who promise to get them to Australia without legal permission.

The immigrants to North America often die in the desert, abandoned or lost. The immigrants to Australia often drown.

This is something I never knew about until I lived here in Indonesia and read/watched the local news.

My U.S. readers might not have a clear picture of how this could happen, so here’s a little geography lesson. Picture India on a map, and then, just to the northwest, past Pakistan, you’ll see Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan standing in a line from west to east. People can cross through Pakistan and India to reach points in Thailand or Malaysia. Thousands of miles of coastline run south, straight to Indonesia. Some of these refugees may even enter Indonesia legally on tourist visas — I don’t know.

Australia lies just south of Indonesia:

Click to enlarge: Map from PCL Map Collection, University of Texas

Indonesia is an archipelago, a nation consisting of more than 17,000 islands. There are lots and lots of boats, for fishing as well as for transport. Poverty is widespread and severe. So the traffickers — the people who take the immigrants’ money — can find plenty of willing boatmen who will risk taking illegal passengers. All you have to do is pay them.

Ose, 15, his 16-year-old cousin Ako and their 15-year-old friend John Ndollu were selling their catch at the local fish market in Kupang when they became unwittingly embroiled in a people smuggling ring.

“To tell you the absolute truth if I knew what was going to happen, I would have stayed here and kept fishing near my home. I was tricked,” says Ose.

Offered the equivalent of more than 10 years’ wages to work as cooks on a boat, the two cousins and their friend didn’t think twice about saying yes. Earning a monthly wage of Rp 25,000 (US$2.75), the prospect of a Rp 5 million [about US$550] paycheck was unbelievable. [source]

Those three boys, from an island in East Indonesia, spent one year in an Australian jail — charged as adults with people smuggling.

Late last year, a number of editorials contrasted the plight of an Australian teenager, held in a Bali jail, and that of many Indonesian teens who are held in Australian prisons for working on boats that brought illegal immigrants to Australia. The Australian boy admitted to having bought a small amount of marijuana while vacationing with his parents in Bali. Australian newspapers ran editorials expressing outrage that a minor might be sentenced to spend years in a foreign prison for such an offense.

Some refugees from various countries do stay in Indonesia — some even legally — but a large number have their hearts set on settling in Australia. So long as extreme poverty persists in Indonesia, it will be easy to find people who will risk carrying the immigrants across the sea.

As for the refugees themselves — can we blame them for wanting to escape from their war-ravaged or oppressive countries? The flow of people will not be stopped by throwing the smugglers into prisons.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Hannah permalink
    1 April 2012 11:43 am

    This article says nothing about human trafficking! It is about illegal immigrants and refugees! I’ve been a victim of human trafficking and this is NOT human trafficking!

  2. 2 April 2012 8:27 am

    @Hannah – You are mainly correct. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking “involves an act of recruiting, transporting, transfering, harbouring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them.”

    We usually think of victims of human trafficking as people who were kidnapped, or taken away from their homes and families under false pretenses, and made to work in the sex businesses or as captive factory labor, etc.

    However, when refugees are fleeing a repressive country, they also are often exploited — by the people who “traffic” them — the people who promise them safe passage. Often they pay a large sum of money at the outset to some broker, but the broker does not care if they really reach a safe destination or not. He only wants to take their money.

    If we focus on the idea that the refugees or migrants voluntarily left their original country, then perhaps they do not fit the definition of the UNODC (above). But if we focus on the system that exploits them (and which leads to many of them drowning in the sea), we might also call this human trafficking. Someone “recruited” them by offering them safe passage to another place.

    And do not forget the Indonesian boys who are recruited to work on the boats. They are also victims when they end up in Australian prisons. You may say they went voluntarily — but the same is true of many captive workers, who consented to go with the traffickers because they THOUGHT they were joining a legitimate business and would be paid and treated properly.

  3. Hannah permalink
    2 April 2012 11:58 am

    This is very interesting to learn, thank you. I hope when I am old enough I can go to college and learn even more.

  4. zainal permalink
    7 July 2012 6:37 am

    An interesting article. These cases are always seen only victims, but “hands” behind it was never touched by the law. Those who benefit from human trafficking often escape the law.

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