Women Trafficking


Asian women trafficking in booming

Santo Koesoebjono*)

The young woman closed the curtain abruptly when she recognized that the would-be client was from her own country. She was not the only Indonesian working in a lane exclusively offering Asian women in the red light district of Amsterdam.

An agent exporting Indonesian women migrants to the Middle East, who is now sending nurses to the Netherlands, confirmed this observation. He once met an Indonesian woman in an escort service. Many young women from Indonesia and other countries in southern Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as from Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America work in the sex industry.

Many are lured under the false pretext of work in glamorous places. A representative of a sex workers’ union said that the business is always in need of something new. The market is vast and it is common for workers to operate on a rotation system, moving throughout different areas.

The illegal import of domestic workers from Indonesia is a big business, responding to the rising demand for baby-sitters and cleaners by Indonesian families and elderly people in The Netherlands. Their wages are cheaper than legal workers. Surprisingly some of these women even have a high school education.

Most of the workers gave up their jobs to earn a higher income in the Netherlands and, using a tourist visa, usually stay until their passport expires after five years. As they do not register the Indonesian and Dutch authorities know nothing about their existence.

Moreover, they stay within their own circle and often their passports are kept by their agents. Employers and employees behave under the silent code of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. If workers are mistreated, they are not entitled to any legal protection. This network of illegal workers is well informed about the demand for workers, wages, where to stay, how to get around and how to avoid official control.

In general female migrants have a better chance of getting a job in Europe. They work as domestic workers, nannies, in cleaning services, flower factories, in the hotel and restaurant business, as nurses and so forth. Young women often get jobs in the entertainment business, which mostly acts as a front for prostitution. Trafficking women is one of the hottest businesses in Southeast Asia. The women come from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

It is a common practice for fellow countrymen to receive migrants and help them get around. The women live in overcrowded housing in popular areas of big cities and find jobs through their informal network. Those who have settled in Europe often invite their husbands to join them. It is, however, more difficult for men to find jobs. Many of them remain at home, taking care of the children and house while the women are working. Men who cannot stand this reversal of gender roles any longer, leave their wife, get hooked on drugs, become involved illegal practices or return home.

Information on the living conditions here reaches family and friends at home, as well as through the Internet. Shortage of labor, and its perceived opportunities for a better life, is frequently a powerful temptation for those in lesser developed countries, even though wages are lower than that paid to nationals or legal workers. The average income per capita in the Netherlands is around US$23,000.

Even professionals like nurses, computer specialists or civil engineers have become victims of this practice. Many Indonesian men lured to work in the hotel or construction industries end up washing dishes in hotels and working in trenches. Blinded by the prospects of a wonderful life in Western Europe and North America, they fall with eyes wide open into the trap set up by exploiters and criminals specializing in human trafficking.

Those who manage to enter the dreamland, however, are not poor, as the passage requires a huge sum of money. The prices vary from US$6,000 to over $25,000 depending on the distance and the country of destination. “I sent my son to Western Europe, not because he didn’t have a job, but to earn more money and improve our situation,” one man said. Indonesian nurses who recently came to the Netherlands have to pay a monthly installment of around $200 for money advanced by the agent.

Notwithstanding strict border control and admission regulations, people can still sneak in to the European Union. The coastline along Italy, France and Spain, and the borders of eastern Germany and Austria, are thousands of kilometers long. As legal entry has become increasingly difficult, seeking asylum and attempting illegal entry are the two other options. In the recent decade human traffickers have overwhelmed routes traditionally used by people seeking asylum to channel bogus asylum seekers, trying to enter the region for mainly economic reasons, at the expense of genuine political refugees.

The huge wave of fake asylum seekers feed anti-migrant sentiment and raise misleading impressions of foreigners. The wave of bogus asylum seekers suggest that their countries of origin cannot provide food and jobs for their own people and cannot use them in development programs. Some countries even implicitly push their people to find employment overseas because remittances can be a precious source of foreign exchange. By the mid-1990s the amount of remittances worldwide was estimated at $74 billion.

 The life of illegal migrants is often tragic. Their living conditions are mostly poor and they often become targets of anti-migrant actions. For most developing countries the loss of skilled and educated labor is detrimental. Officials in the countries of origin are often more keen to benefit from granting permits to agencies exporting labor than to think about the fate of these aspiring workers.

A few casualties are considered as nothing compared to the many success stories of female domestic workers, as expressed by officials in Indonesia’s Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration when discussing the problems of Indonesian women working in the Middle East.

People will continue to move overseas illegally, irrespective of border controls. The business of trafficking humans will keep booming as long as officials continue to welcome the bribes of traffickers; as long as differences in standards of living and job opportunities between countries remain so vast; and while cheap labor remains in such demand.

Indonesia remains one of these sources of cheap man — and woman — power.


*) The writer, an economist and demographer based in The Netherlands, is conducting research on migration.

Published in: The Jakarta Post, April 07, 2001

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