Human Rights

Indonesian Trafficking Survivors Fighting Back: Transforming Desperation into Determination

Rokaya needed time to recover after illness forced her to quit as a live-in maid in Malaysia and return home to Indramayu, West Java. However, under pressure from her agent who claimed two million Rupiah for her initial placement, she accepted an offer of work in Erbil, Iraq.

There, Ms. Rokaya found herself responsible for taking care of a family’s sprawling compound—working from 6 a.m. until after midnight, seven days per week.

As exhaustion worsened the headaches and vision problems that had originally forced her to leave Malaysia, Ms. Rokaya’s host family refused to take her to a doctor and confiscated her mobile phone. “I was not given any day off. I barely had time for a break,” she said. “It felt like a prison.” 

Physical and sexual abuse

The hardships Ms. Rokaya endured will be familiar to the 544 Indonesian migrant workers the UN migration agency (IOM) assisted between 2019 and 2022, in association with the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union (SBMI). Many of them experienced physical, psychological and sexual abuse overseas. That caseload comes despite a moratorium Jakarta imposed on work in 21 countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2015, following Saudi Arabia’s execution of two Indonesian maids. 

To mitigate the humanitarian impact of trafficking in person, IOM works with Indonesia’s Government to shore up the regulatory environment on labour migration; trains law enforcement to better respond to trafficking cases; and works with partners like SBMI to protect migrant workers from exploitation – and, if necessary, repatriate them.

© UNIC Jakarta

Rokaya stands in front of her house in Indramayu, West Java.

“Cases like Ms. Rokaya’s underscore the need for victim-centric approaches and for strengthening the protection system to prevent migrant workers from falling prey to trafficking in persons,” says Jeffrey Labovitz, IOM’s Chief of Mission for Indonesia.

After a clandestinely recorded video of Ms. Rokaya went viral and reached SBMI, the government intervened to get her released. However, she says her agency illegally extracted the cost of her return airfare from her wages and—with a hand around her throat—forced her to sign a document absolving them of responsibility. She now knows better: “We need to really be careful about the information that is given to us, because when we miss key details, we pay the price.”

Ms. Rokaya is relieved to be back home, she adds, but has no recourse to claim the money extorted from her.

© UNIC Jakarta

Indonesian fishers.

A fear of failure

It is an all-too-common situation, says SBMI’s chairman Hariyono Surwano, because victims are often reluctant to share details of their experience overseas: “They fear being seen as a failure because they went overseas to improve their financial situation but returned with money problems.”

It is not only victims’ shame that affects the slow progress of trafficking case prosecutions. Legal ambiguity and the difficulties authorities face prosecuting cases also pose obstacles, compounded by the police sometimes blaming victims for their situation. SBMI data shows around 3,335 Indonesian victims of trafficking in the Middle East between 2015 and the middle of 2023. While most have returned to Indonesia, only two per cent have been able to access justice. 

Around 3.3 million Indonesians were employed abroad in 2021, according to Bank Indonesia, on top of more than five million undocumented migrant workers the Indonesian agency for the protection of migrant workers (BP2MI) estimates are overseas. More than three quarters of Indonesian migrant labourers work low-skill jobs that can pay up to six times more than the rate at home, with some 70 per cent of returnees reporting that employment abroad was a positive experience that improved their welfare, according to the World Bank. 

© UNIC Jakarta

“I’m willing to keep going, even if it takes forever,” says fisherman Mr. Saenudin, a trafficking survivor.

Unpaid 20-hour days

For those who become victims of trafficking, the experience is rarely positive. At SBMI’s Jakarta headquarters, fisherman Saenudin, from Java’s Thousand Islands, explained how in 2011 he signed a contract to work on a foreign fishing vessel, hoping to give his family a better life. Once at sea, he was forced to work 20-hour days hauling in nets and dividing catch and was only paid for the first three of his 24 months of gruelling labour.

In December 2013, South African authorities detained the vessel off Cape Town, where it had been fishing illegally, and held Mr. Saenudin for three months before IOM and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs helped him and 73 other Indonesian seafarers to repatriate. 

In the nine years since, Mr. Saenudin has been fighting to recover 21 months of missing pay, a legal battle that forced him to sell everything he owns except his house. “The struggle tore me from my family,” he says.

An IOM survey of more than 200 prospective Indonesian fishers provided actionable insights to the government for enhancing recruitment processes, associated fees, pre-departure training, and migration management. In 2022, IOM trained 89 judges, legal practitioners, and paralegals on adjudicating trafficking in persons cases, including the application of child victim and gender-sensitive approaches, as well as 162 members of anti-trafficking task forces in East Nusa Tenggara and North Kalimantan provinces. 

For Mr. Saenudin, improvements in case handling can’t come soon enough. Still, the resolve of the fisherman shows no cracks. “I’m willing to keep going, even if it takes forever,” he said.



  1. It’s heartbreaking to hear about the horrific experiences like Ms. Rokaya’s. Trafficking survivors like her deserve justice and support to rebuild their lives. More efforts must be made to prevent such exploitation and provide comprehensive assistance to those who have suffered.

  2. It’s heartbreaking to hear about the struggles and abuse Ms. Rokaya and other Indonesian migrant workers endured. It’s crucial for governments and organizations to work together to strengthen regulations and provide better protection for these vulnerable individuals.

  3. It’s heartbreaking to hear about the experiences of these survivors. Their resilience and determination in the face of such hardships is truly inspiring. More needs to be done to protect migrant workers and to hold accountable those who exploit and abuse them.

  4. As a survivor myself, I admire Ms. Rokaya’s courage and strength in the face of such adversity. It’s heartbreaking to hear about the exploitation and abuse she endured, but her determination to fight back is truly inspiring. It’s crucial that we continue to support and empower survivors like her, and work towards preventing such atrocities from happening in the future.

  5. I’m truly moved by Ms. Rokaya’s story of perseverance and determination in the face of such adversity. It’s heartbreaking to hear about the abuse she endured, but it’s inspiring to see how she is fighting back. It’s crucial for organizations like IOM and SBMI to continue their efforts in combatting trafficking and supporting survivors.

  6. It is heartbreaking to hear stories of trafficking survivors like Ms. Rokaya facing such inhumane conditions. We must do more to protect vulnerable migrant workers and hold those responsible for abuse to account.

  7. How are these survivors coping with the mental and emotional trauma they’ve endured? Is there adequate support available for them to heal and rebuild their lives?

    1. Survivors like Ms. Rokaya are resilient and inspiring individuals who are gradually overcoming the mental and emotional trauma they faced. Organizations such as the UN migration agency and the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union provide crucial support services to help them heal and rebuild their lives. It’s a difficult journey, but with the right support, these survivors are finding the strength to move forward.

  8. It’s heartbreaking to hear the struggles that Ms. Rokaya and many other Indonesian migrant workers face. We must continue to support organizations like IOM and SBMI in their efforts to protect vulnerable individuals and fight against human trafficking.

  9. Are there any specific measures in place to prevent cases like Ms. Rokaya’s from happening again?

    1. Yes, there are ongoing efforts to prevent cases like Ms. Rokaya’s. International organizations and governments are working together to improve regulations, enhance law enforcement training, and provide support to migrant workers through partnerships like SBMI. However, more comprehensive measures and stricter enforcement are needed to effectively combat trafficking and protect vulnerable individuals.

  10. As a survivor of trafficking myself, I admire the courage of Ms. Rokaya and others who are fighting back against exploitation. It takes immense strength to transform desperation into determination and speak out against the abuse they endured. Organizations like IOM and SBMI play a crucial role in supporting survivors and combating trafficking. Their collaborative efforts are essential in creating a safer environment for migrant workers.

  11. It’s truly heartbreaking to read about the struggles faced by Indonesian migrant workers like Ms. Rokaya. The abuse and exploitation they endure are simply intolerable. We must work together to create safer migration pathways and stronger protections for these vulnerable individuals.

  12. It’s heartbreaking to hear about the challenges Ms. Rokaya faced while working abroad. It’s essential for governments and organizations to collaborate closely to prevent such exploitation and abuse of migrant workers.

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