• Josephine Imelda | Programme Assistant I (Communications)
  • Ayunda Eka Pratama | National Media and Communications Officer

The sea has witnessed thousands of Indonesian migrant workers (PMI) being subjected to trafficking in persons (TiP) due to fraudulent schemes by local recruitment agencies. Rahmatullah, or also known as Rahmat who once worked as a crew member at a fishing vessel in the Somali Sea, tells the story of his experience of becoming a victim of trafficking (VoT).

Seizing the dream

Rahmat was working at a convenience store when he met his friend who had just returned from Peru, after working as a crew in a foreign fishing vessel. Little did he know that this encounter would change his destiny. “He told me he made a good salary working at a ship.  I started to think of his offer to work on a ship because I wanted to explore the world and earn more money to help my parents,” Rahmat began his story.

He then went to the local recruitment agency office near his village, referred by his friend, to find out further. The agency told him that the requirement was easy. He just needed to submit administrative documents and a registration fee of IDR 1.5 million.

Lulled by the lure of a dollar salary and overseas work experience, Rahmat immediately decided to jump at the opportunity. "The agency told me I just need to wait for everything to be sorted out. They will arrange everything."

After a while, Rahmat received a call from the agency to sign a Marine Employment Agreement letter. The letter stated that Rahmat would work on a fishing vessel in the processing department. He would receive a monthly salary of USD 400 and a bonus of USD 700 every time the ship docked at the port. Along with the letter, he received a medical checkup result, which he had never done. It confused him at first, but then he ignored it as he thought the agency would like to speed up the process.

From Jakarta to Somalia

Rahmat started his journey from Jakarta in January 2018. He travelled to Singapore before continuing a 14-day journey to Somalia by ship with other crew members from other countries. The company arranged the travel and withheld the travel documents of all crew members.

Upon arrival in Somalia, Rahmat started to work. Unlike what was stated in his contract that he would be working as a storage crew; he was assigned as a fishing crew.  “I have no skills or a certification to be a professional angler, so I was a bit afraid. They did not provide adequate safety equipment,” he shared.

As time passed by, Rahmat and other crew members experienced discrimination. After working in the Somali Sea for two months, the fishing company cut their access to clean water. As a result, Rahmat and his colleagues had to collect condensate water from the air conditioner. "We usually collect the AC water in a bucket and use it for various needs such as brushing teeth, cooking, and drinking. We rarely took a bath to save water. And if we took a bath, we did not use soap. The company did not give us proper toiletries," Rahmat recalled his dreadful memory of ten months working at the vessel.

Not only were they not given access to clean water, but they were also provided with minimum food logistics such as rice, chilli, and cabbage. When Rahmat and his colleagues protested about food, the captain only added flour to their logistics. They only relied on the abundant fish that the sea could offer if they wanted to add protein to their plate. Their condition was different to the other staff members from the country that own the vessel, where they could enjoy clean water and healthy food. The suffering was doubled as the crew members had to work 18 to 20 hours a day with minimal equipment. Rahmat told IOM that the crew members were often beaten, kicked, and even had heavy objects thrown at them when catches were low. "I sprained my leg one day, but the captain told me to continue work. The captain gave me some medicine, but he did not explain it. I was afraid to take the medicine," he added.

Escaping the nightmare

After seven months of suffering, Rahmat took the initiative to call his family in Indonesia. He discreetly borrowed Wi-Fi from the Somali guards who patrolled the ship in exchange for a sweater. When Rahmat called his family, he was surprised to find out that his salary was not wired to his family. He then contacted the agency to complain but got an unpleasant answer. “They cursed me when I asked about my suspended salary and told me to shut up. They said that if I were to be killed and die on the ship, the agency would not take any responsibility,” Rahmat felt disillusioned and helpless, but he did not give up. "I have to go home," he added.

A month after Rahmat protested, his parents finally received money from the agency, but the amount was only IDR 7.6 million (USD 496), far from what they were promised.

One day, a crew member from the Philippines died because of food poisoning as he often ate expired and spoiled food. This accident steeled Rahmat’s courage to escape the situation. With the help of Somalian guards, he managed to contact the Indonesian Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. "I panicked and reported my situation to the Indonesian Embassy - they said they would coordinate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Indonesia," Rahmat said. He then also contacted his family via social media to ask for help from the local authorities. Rahmat's family swiftly followed up on his request and asked for support from the Indonesian Seafarers Movement Union (SPPI) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to repatriate Rahmat and other Indonesian crew members immediately.

The government then prepared for evacuation. While waiting for the process, Rahmat was pressured by the ship captain and Somali guards on the fishing boat. "They told me that I could not leave the ship because they had already paid my salary in advance to the agency," he said. This statement, of course, contradicted with the statement of the agency, which said the company hadn’t paid the salary. "I don't know which party is lying," said Rahmat.

The Government of Indonesia, with the help of Somalian Police, sent a small boat to evacuate Rahmat and five other Indonesia crew members. “Some Indonesian who were sent by another agency decided to stay. Later, I heard that they didn’t receive full salary”.  

After reaching the mainland, Rahmat and the other Indonesian crew members were taken to Bosaso City, a town on the North Coast of Somalia. Rahmat and the other crew members were given hotel accommodation for three days in the city before being given plane tickets to return to Indonesia.

Return home

Upon his return to Indonesia, Rahmat was often terrorized by his former agency, who threatened him not to tell anyone about his case. The terrors weren’t only addressed at him, but also to his family members. Feeling threatened and unsafe, Rahmat sought for protection from the union. He also changed his number so the agency’s thugs could not track him. 

Starting a new sail

Rahmat and his fellow ex-crew members also received reintegration assistance from IOM.  One of the assistances offered by IOM was a partial scholarship to pursue higher education. Four of Rahmat's friends requested financial assistance to continue their education at the Seamanship School.  Meanwhile, Rahmat requested that IOM provide a partial scholarship to study law.

"I want to study law because I have seen how easily people can be tricked because they do not have legal literacy. I want to help victims of trafficking, especially those who work in the maritime sector,” said Rahmat, studying law at Bung Karno University in Jakarta. Rahmat is also actively advocating seafarers' rights and raising awareness of the trafficking in persons in the maritime sector through the union. He is currently the Chief Advocacy Officer of SPPI.

Indonesia is a country of origin, transit, and destination of trafficking in persons (TIP). Since 2005, IOM Indonesia has been assisting the Government of Indonesia in addressing human trafficking and exploitation. IOM Indonesia provides return, recovery, and reintegration assistance to victims of trafficking, including identification, counselling, medical and psychological care, provision of food and non-food items, legal aid, and education and livelihood support.

“Since 2005, IOM has assisted more than 9,600 victims of trafficking. We use a victim-centred approach to provide tailored assistance according to their needs and situations,” said Sebastien Reclaru, Programme Manager for Counter-Trafficking Unit, IOM Indonesia.


© IOM 2023/Rahmatullah