I share with you news about a recent case of human trafficking that involves young women and girls from East Nusa Tenggara (or NTT), the Indonesian province where we live. NTT is said to have one of the highest rates of exporting illegal migrant workers, with primary destinations being Malaysia and Hong Kong. Muslim women are sent to these destinations as well as to some countries in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. The Women's Network of Eastern Indonesia (JPIT), some of whose members are professors or former students at UKAW Theology Faculty, which is a Global Ministries partner, researches issues of women, religion, and culture. JPIT has only recently begun to explore how best to respond to the overwhelming horrors of trafficking in eastern Indonesia, an illegal trade that has very wealthy and powerful backing. Yet just as we had begun to strategize, this particular case came to light.
Not all cases of abuse occur outside of Indonesia. In February of 2011, 22 women and girls were trafficked from various villages in West Timor to the city of Medan in North Sumatra. They were confined on the top floor of a multi-storied building where they cleaned the nests of a rare bird for use in Chinese bird's nest soup and medicines. Their working conditions were abhorrent. They were made to clean dirty nests in a closed room without ventilation so that some of them eventually suffered from bad lungs. The salaries of some were withheld, some were beaten, and some were forced to take a drug that stopped menstruation. They all lacked mobility or means of communication outside the factory walls, and they were starved, usually given only white rice and a kind of shrimp cracker so that many of the workers lost a lot of weight and became vulnerable to illness.
A year ago, Eri, one of the women, escaped from the factory and managed to return home to West Timor. At that time she shared her horrible experiences with members of a local women’s safe house and an anti-corruption NGO. At that time her case was reported to the provincial police (of NTT), but no action was taken. A year after Eri’s report to the police, two other victims of trafficking with whom Eri had worked—Marni and Rista—died in Medan within a few days of each other. Following Marni’s death, police in Medan arrested the factory owner and released the women workers, a large number of whom were sent to the hospital because they were so weak; as of the end of February three of them were said to still be in critical condition.
JPIT joined forces with members of the women’s safe house and NGO who have been supporting Eri since her return to bring parents of the girls and young women from their villages to Kupang (the provincial capital of NTT) in order to share information, provide support, and to document how the girls were taken from their villages, sent to Kupang, and then on to Medan. The group also planned to join Rista’s family at the airport outside of Kupang to receive Rista’s coffin, then accompany the family to a local congregation for prayer before the family continued its journey to the remote village where Rista would be buried. However, once government officials got wind of the situation they insisted on providing an ambulance to deliver Rista’s coffin to her village. That is why at about 11 pm on 4 March, the night before Ash Wednesday, John and I joined a handful of Protestants and Catholics at Kupang’s cargo terminal to hold a short worship service once Rista’s coffin arrived. John gave the prayer of intercession.
Prior to this worship service, many had gathered at the JPIT office to share information and practice hymns. A staff member of the anti-corruption NGO explained what was needed in order to prepare a report for the police about Rista and Marni’s deaths as well as the conditions the other women have faced in the Medan factory. Although it seems clear that some police are involved in this trade, it is still important to follow legal procedures and file a report. During this time of sharing, Rista's mother went into a spasm of grief; she moaned, cried, and swore that she never sold her daughter to anyone.
The media coverage of this case has quickly gone national (a television program interviewed the factory owner and some police representatives in Medan) and international (a recently-arrived Dutch missionary was interviewed by a Dutch reporter shortly after the worship service). Due to the broad coverage this story is receiving, there is concern that the many people with vested interests in illegal trafficking (all up and down the scale of interest) may try to bribe the families so they will not speak out about the abuse their daughters experienced. Indeed, there is indication that this has already happened in one village. A team of doctors is headed from Kupang to Medan, supposedly to assess the condition of the girls still living, but there is concern they may not be independent and that their findings are intended to diminish the degree of abuse and neglect—grave human rights violations. A member of the national Human Rights Commission is scheduled to arrive in Kupang in a few days, but some still wonder: Will a full accounting of this case be supported or suppressed?
Yet in the midst of this tragedy, I recently heard some good news. One aspect of pastoral care and support that JPIT has sought to facilitate is communication between the young women and their parents. It is a simple enough goal, yet has been surprisingly difficult to realize. Finally, however, a mother who had traveled six hours from the eastern side of West Timor to reach Kupang, was able to speak with their daughter, and speak they did for nearly an hour by phone. After three years without communication, and knowing of other women’s deaths, friends tell me that the mother’s relief at hearing her daughter’s voice was palpable.
Please pray for all young people, many without skills and resources, who remain so vulnerable to trafficking; pray for an end to trafficking; do something to help end trafficking.
Karen Campbell-Nelson serves with the Evangelical Church of West Timor. Her work is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing.