Why the ban on sending migrant workers to the Middle East isn’t working

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Photo by Rivan Awal Lingga for Antara.

In May 2015, the Indonesian government announced a permanent ban on sending domestic workers to 21 mainly Middle East countries. The decision was made following the execution of two Indonesian domestic workers and several high profile cases of abuse. The government also claimed that the ban was necessary because several of the countries, such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen, were sites of significant unrest, which could endanger migrant lives.

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, more than 630,000 Indonesians work in the Middle East. Although experts suggest that the total number is much higher once undocumented and trafficked workers are taken into account.

The ban was formalised with the passage of Ministry of Manpower Regulation No. 260 of 2015, and has been in place for almost two years. But the flow of migrants has not stopped. Migration to the Middle East is not as large as before the ban, but migrants continue to leave seeking fortune in the Gulf countries. In certain peak periods, such as during Ramadan, the number of migrants departing is even higher.

Since March 2015, Indonesian civil society organisation Migrant Care has been documenting the movement of migrant workers through Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. Migrant Care began monitoring the flow of domestic workers to the Middle East to gain a greater understanding of their access to communications technology – many domestic workers in the Middle East experience significant social isolation, as employers often restrict access to communications. Following the ban, however, Migrant Care focused its monitoring efforts on assessing the impact of the policy. This involved looking at the level of compliance with the regulation, the directions of migrant flows, and the strategies used by migrants to circumvent the new regulation.

In the year to May 2016, Migrant Care interviewed 2,644 domestic workers heading abroad. Some 1,020 domestic workers were departing for the first time, while the remaining 1,624 were returning to work following a break. Most were heading to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait, with a small number travelling to Malaysia. This survey obviously represents a small fraction of the total number departing. Similar monitoring conducted by the National Agency for the Protection and Placement of Migrant Workers (BNP2TKI), found that 8,714 migrant workers departed for the Middle East from January-May 2016, and most were domestic workers.

Despite the Ministry of Manpower’s attempts to ban domestic workers from working in the Middle East, the desire to work there remains high. This is strengthened by data on remittances from Bank Indonesia. In 2015, despite the fact that the ban had been in place for half of the year, remittances from the Middle East were US$3.52 billion, a significant increase from the US$2.87 billion recorded in 2014. The figure was also higher than remittances from Southeast Asia, which totalled only US$2.6 billion. Even in the first quarter of 2016, remittances from the Middle East reached US$878 million, while $680 million was recorded from Southeast Asia.

Migrant Care’s survey revealed that domestic workers deployed a range of strategies to get to the Middle East. One of the most common methods was to enter on the hajj or umrah pilgrimage. Others would stay on after visiting relatives, or using a transit visa then concealing their identities. Although the new rules also forbid private migration agents (PPTKIS) from placing migrant workers in the Middle East, the survey found that most who departed used agents or middlemen connected to private firms.

The survey results are so concerning because the large numbers of domestic workers who have chosen to defy the ban are departing with little to no legal protection. These domestic workers are highly vulnerable to human trafficking or conditions of forced labour. Domestic workers who flout the ban will find it even harder to access consular assistance. Since the ban was first implemented in June 2016, Indonesian representatives in the 21 affected countries have said that they will not process any matters related to the placement of migrants.

The government recognise it has a problem. From 2005-2016 it has remained stagnant at Tier 2 in the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report. Similarly, Indonesia is ranked 10 in the Global Slavery Index, because of the number of its citizens who are trapped in some form of modern slavery. But banning migrant workers from heading to the Middle East is not the solution.

Not only does the ban violate the rights to work and mobility, the policy could also result in greater numbers of migrants becoming victims of human trafficking or forced labour. Policies to protect migrant workers should be dedicated to guaranteeing the right to work and the right to mobility. There should also be concurrent efforts to strengthen the quality of protection, improve preparation and training of domestic workers (which must include efforts to promote rights awareness) and provide maximum supervision to prevent exploitation by employers.

Source: Indonesia at Melbourne