John Mcbeth – Straits Times
The Indonesian government is mounting an ambitious land-bridge operation to rescue hundreds of Indonesian migrant workers from war-torn Syria.
This builds on a record that demonstrates a greater commitment than previous administrations to caring for imperiled citizens abroad.
Half of what will eventually be a 60-man contingent of police and military officers, unarmed and in civilian clothes, flew to Beirut on Dec. 20 to help facilitate the extraction of at least 600 workers gathered at the Indonesian Embassy and in safe houses around Damascus.
Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told foreign journalists recently that even at the height of the civil war, the Syrian authorities had been unwilling to issue exit permits to migrant workers without the permission of employers, many of whom had fled the country.
Sources familiar with the Indonesian operation say the plan is to bring the Indonesians out of the embattled Syrian capital in bus convoys that will have to cross government and opposition lines on the dangerous four-hour journey to the Lebanese border.
The Syrian government has given the Indonesians the go-ahead. But it is unclear whether safe-passage assurances have been received from various factions making up the Syrian opposition.
There are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Indonesians working or now simply surviving in Syria, including some trapped in the beleaguered northern industrial city of Aleppo, close to the now-shuttered border with Turkey.
The Foreign Ministry says over 4,900 workers have fled since the civil war broke out in March 2011, including nearly 200 brought out about a fortnight ago.
If the Damascus evacuation comes off, it will be the second time in eight months that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government has launched a risky mission to rescue Indonesians in peril abroad.
The Indonesian military in May 2011 carried out its longest-range operation in 30 years to bring home 20 Indonesian crewmen aboard a hijacked ship off the Somali coast.
This was despite going along with the shipping line paying a US$3 million ransom.
Special forces troops, operating from a flotilla of frigates and Indonesian navy landing craft, killed four pirates who sought to recapture the 8,900-ton bulk carrier Sinar Kudus after the original hijackers had left the ship.
Earlier, Indonesian administrations were almost criminal in their neglect of overseas workers, particularly abused young maids from poor Java families. But that has changed considerably in recent years.
The greater attention to humanitarian issues can perhaps be explained by a commensurate increase in worker remittances — from $1.9 billion at the start of Yudhoyono’s administration in 2004 to an estimated $6.9 billion last year.
That puts overseas employment almost on the same level as tourism as a foreign exchange earner. The workers have helped reduce income inequality in many rural communities, even though the cost to family life is not accounted for.
Currently, more than 60 percent of an estimated four million overseas workers are employed in Asia, particularly Malaysia and Hong Kong, with the remainder spread out through northern Africa and the Middle East.
Manpower and Transmigration Ministry records show that only about 2.7 million of these are officially documented. Potentially tens of thousands of domestic workers are exposed to worse exploitation.
Indonesia imposed a ban in June 2011 on sending more maids to Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries. This ban will continue until the governments sign bilateral agreements to better protect the workers from employer abuse.
Indonesian domestic workers had been mistreated for years, but the last straw came when Saudi authorities callously neglected to inform Jakarta before beheading a maid accused of killing her employer’s alleged abusive wife.
Female domestics previously chose Arab countries because they thought fellow Muslims would make the best employers. But in too many cases they have been treated as pieces of property — or worse — and are not even allowed prayer time.
In 2010, Migrant Care recorded 5,560 reports of physical and sexual abuse in Saudi Arabia alone, including two cases where a maid leapt from a third floor apartment to escape relentless torture, and another where a body was found in a dumpster.
Indonesia lifted a similar two-year moratorium on sending maids to Malaysia in mid-2011. This was after the Malaysian government signed an agreement purportedly guaranteeing migrants better protection, higher wages and a day off each week.
But it was re-imposed only seven months later, with diplomats revealing that more than 1,000 maids had sought refuge at the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur each year, complaining of abuse and unpaid wages.
Mistreatment of maids — and a series of incidents where Malaysian police gunned down suspected Indonesian criminals out of hand — has soured people-to-people relations between the two neighbors.
Indonesia has also had to get its own house in order. Only recently, it closed a special terminal at Jakarta’s international airport which was meant to facilitate the movement of migrant workers, but turned into a nightmare of red tape and rip-offs.
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times