Indonesia Expat
Featured History/Culture

Invisible Migrants: Indonesians Abroad

Growing up as a kid in the melting pot that is California, where since 2000 no single ethnic group has accounted for a majority of the population, I amazingly never once met an Indonesian.

Oh, there were plenty of Asians – fellow Indians, Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Thai and, going further west, neighbourhoods for Armenians and Persians. Both second-generation Asians like me, or recent immigrants alike. It is not too dissimilar to what you find in other western cosmopolitan cities like London, Paris, or Berlin. But, with the exception of former colonial overlord Holland, none of these countries have as much of a presence from the world’s fourth largest country. Indonesia doesn’t even rank in the top 25 origin countries of migrants to members countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD), which includes much smaller countries, such as Ukraine or Peru1. It is easy to conclude then that Indonesians just don’t emigrate much.

That would be completely wrong. It might surprise you to learn that Indonesians are one of the world’s largest migratory countries. An estimated 6.5 million Indonesians work abroad at any given time, though accurate numbers are nearly impossible to glean due to the constant flow of people in and out of the country. They aren’t coming to developed countries, though; instead, the top destinations are Saudi Arabia (1.5 million) and Malaysia (1 million), with significant populations also in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Qatar, the UAE and Jordan. They come from all around the archipelago, but predominantly from the lower classes and kampungs in Central Java, East Java and Lombok.

They are also one of the populations most vulnerable to exploitation abroad. Weak multilateral agreements, contradictory policies, aggressive, unaccountable employment agencies and a government that actually profits from migrant workers leave too many Indonesians in situations of forced labour, domestic servitude, or sexual exploitation abroad. Low education and foreign language abilities of many migrants only acerbates this.

Many work in the shadows, as domestic workers, in isolated factories, or in remote palm oil plantations. Some of their stories are heartbreaking. Did you hear about Erwiana, a 22-year-old domestic worker who was tortured by her employer for nine months in Hong Kong? Or Satinah, who killed her employer in self-defence, and who was only recently freed from death row in Saudi Arabia after $1.8 million in blood money was paid? Both made headlines in the Indonesian and international media. According to Migrant Care, an NGO that works to protect and raise awareness about Indonesian migrant workers, there are 375 Indonesians on death row abroad, many for crimes they did not commit, or for acts of self-defence.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Migrant Care also estimates that three Indonesian migrants die every single day; over 1,000 a year. The reasons are a multitude – police brutality in Malaysia2, poor working conditions in the Middle East and untreated diseases caught while working in the sex industry. Most are young, and most are women.

Imagine if three Dutch, American, or Germans died abroad every day? The outrage and international attention would be astounding. The murder of a single American in Bali a few months ago made headlines all across Indonesia3. Can you remember the last time you saw a story in your home country about an Indonesian who was murdered abroad?

As an American, I’m incredibly lucky. Many of us who consider ourselves expats (a word with a far different connotation than ‘migrant’) are well protected here in Indonesia. We have access to excellent services that most Indonesians can only dream of. We are connected to each other through powerful networks. We’re not exploited at work, nor are we subject to regular physical or sexual abuse. Few of us are tied to a single employer or forced to stay here until our visa expires. I’ve never heard of an expat having his or her employer take their passports to keep them from leaving – a common practice in the Middle East and Malaysia.

This is often because the countries we come from protect their citizens abroad. Indonesians working abroad don’t enjoy the same luxury. Let’s remember them and fight for their rights too, both here and in our home countries. We may call ourselves expats, but we are also migrants, and all of our stories are connected. Just because we’re more visible and from better-off countries, doesn’t mean we should forget about those who are not. If we haven’t learned that from our international experience, then what’s the point of being abroad?




Learn More:
BuruhMigran Portal (in Bahasa Indonesia) – An information portal run by and for migrant workers to keep up with issues and for Indonesians to be aware of workers’ issues abroad.
Migrant Care – Indonesian NGO focused on protecting Indonesian Migrant Workers’ rights abroad.
IOM (International Organization for Migration) – Global body that oversees international regulations while also monitors and collects data on migration.

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