Sun, Dec 16, 2018 - Page 7 News List

The lost girls of West Timor: Migrant girls vanish into vast Asian trafficking networks

In Indonesia’s southernmost province, girls have disappeared for years, sometimes to return in coffins — and often never to be heard from again, leaving family members with no way to know where their children have gone By Kristen Gelineau and Niniek Karmini

AP, FATUKOKO, Indonesia

Illustration: June Hsu

The stranger showed up at the girl’s door one night with a tantalizing job offer: Give up your world and I will give you a future.

It was a chance for 16-year-old Marselina Neonbota to leave her isolated village in one of the poorest parts of Indonesia for neighboring Malaysia, where some migrant workers can earn more in a few years than in a lifetime at home.

It presented a way out for a girl so hungry for a life beyond subsistence farming that she walked 22km every day to the schoolhouse and back.

She grabbed the opportunity — and disappeared.

The cheerful child known to her family as Lina joined the army of Indonesians who migrate every year to wealthier countries in Asia and the Middle East for work. Thousands come home in coffins or vanish.

Among them, possibly hundreds of trafficked girls have quietly disappeared from the impoverished western half of Timor Island and elsewhere in East Nusa Tenggara Province.

The National Agency for Placement and Protection of Indonesian Workers has counted more than 2,600 cases of dead or missing Indonesian migrants since 2014, and even those numbers mostly leave out people like Lina, who are recruited illegally — an estimated 30 percent of Indonesia’s 6.2 million migrant workers.

On that night in 2010, Lina did not seem to sense the danger posed by the stranger named Sarah, but her great aunt and great uncle, who had raised her, were hesitant.

Sarah insisted that they could trust her.

She was related to the village chief, she said, adding that Lina would only be gone two years.

Lina’s aunt, Teresia Tasoin, knew that a Malaysian salary could support the whole family. Her husband — fighting both a teenager’s excitement and a crushing headache — doubted that he could stop Lina from going.

Still, the couple wanted to hold a Catholic prayer service for Lina before she left.

Sarah said that she would only take Lina to the provincial capital of Kupang for one night to organize her paperwork and bring her back the next day.

It was a lie.

Less than one hour after Sarah walked into their home, she walked back out with Lina. And just like that, their girl was gone.

Looking back on that day, Tasoin crumbled under the weight of what-ifs.

“I regret it,” she said through tears. “I regret letting her go.”

When it comes to tracking the fate of migrants, Asia is the blackest of black holes.

It has more migrants than any region on earth, with millions traveling within Asia and to the Middle East for work. Yet it has the least data on those who vanish.

In an exclusive tally, The Associated Press (AP) found more than 8,000 cases of dead and missing migrants in Asia and the Middle East since 2014, in addition to the 2,700 listed by the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).

More than 2,000 unearthed by the AP were from the Philippines alone and countless other cases are never reported.

These workers reflect part of the hidden toll of global migration.

An AP investigation documented at least 61,135 migrants dead or missing worldwide over the same period, a tally that keeps rising. That is more than double the number found by the IOM, the only group that has tried to count them.

While it is not clear how many left for jobs, in general, workers make up about two-thirds of international migrants, while the rest are fleeing everything from drug violence to war and famine, according to the UN’s International Labour Organization.

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