• Josephine Imelda | Programme Assistant I (Communications)

Cimahi, West Java - Hailing from Cimahi, West Java, and raised in a middle-class family, Novi enjoyed a cheerful childhood and decent education before getting married in 2010, when she became a stay-at-home wife.  

Ten years later, her marriage ended, leaving Novi as a single parent responsible for their 12-year-old son. Suddenly thrust into a solo parenting role, she actively sought employment opportunities, but rejections were all that she received.  

"They always said that I am no longer in the productive age bracket. It's hard to believe that productivity is limited to people in their 20s.  This work culture is discriminatory," Novi lamented. Her situation worsened as her former husband left behind a substantial debt, making it difficult to provide for her child. 

Amidst her desperation, Novi contacted her college friend, Anthony (pseudonym), who told her about a job in Thailand. Learning that Anthony had decided not to pursue the job due to family objections. Novi offered to take the job to solve her financial problems. 


Migrating overseas 

Through a placement agency in Bekasi, West Java, Novi had her travel documents ready, and she was promised to work as a Customer Service Representative, earning THB 30,000 (roughly USD 850) per month. The company assured her they would cover her expenses, lodging and meals during her stay in Thailand.  

Excited about this prospect that came along with the job, Novi did not pay much attention to her employment contract, which was written in Chinese, a language Novi did not understand. 

Along with 15 other employees from Indonesia, Novi embarked on her journey to Thailand. Upon arrival, a company representative met them and drove them for 9 hours by car through plantations, empty land and several checkpoints to northern Thailand. To her surprise, their journey went on with a boat ride to the Thai border with Myanmar. 

"After crossing the river, we saw a foreign flag that wasn’t Thailand’s, and we were greeted by an armed group. I was scared and had a feeling something was wrong with the job" Novi recalled.

Novi standing in front of her parent’s house in Cimahi, West Java

Promise vs reality 

For seven months, Novi was forced to work in Xinghua Park, one of several business districts in Myanmar. Surrounded by high walls and guarded by armed soldiers, the district had a detention cell for workers who violated the rules. 

There, Novi was given phones and computers for work and personal use. Her job was to create Facebook accounts using stolen identities, then connect with people from Canada or the United States and pass their WhatsApp numbers to her colleagues for a fraudulent scheme.  

Working in the online scamming industry became her worst nightmare. She had to work for 19 – 21 hours a day with no proper breaks or enough time to sleep. She never got paid either, as they deducted the cost of her accommodation and meals from her salary. 

When failing to meet targets, Novi faced physical punishment such as running, standing in the heat, planks, push-ups, and electric shocks. Unable to endure the maltreatments, she created a video to share her plight, hoping to gain attention from the Government of Indonesia and be rescued. 

Once the employer discovered the video, Novi and her colleagues were immediately confined to a small, stuffy room for a week without food and water. Later, they were moved to another room where they were beaten with iron and bamboo sticks, followed by electrocution. Subsequently, they spent another week in the district prison. 

In the meantime, with the assistance of her sibling, the video she created went viral in Indonesia, drawing attention from the Government. “The company asked USD 1,000 per person to send us to Thailand. Otherwise, they threatened to harvest our organs. Fortunately, with the help of local government, we safely reached Thailand,” she explained. 


IOM’s support 

Once arriving in Thailand, Novi and her colleagues from Indonesia were welcomed by the Indonesian Embassy. IOM provided them with various services, including food, accommodation, legal counselling, and interpreters for their temporary stay. 

Later on despite returning home. Novi’s experience of working in the online scamming industry left her traumatic memories. 

To assist her, IOM Indonesia provided USD 1,250 cash-based interventions to help her regain her confidence and start a new business if she wishes. "The training offered by IOM gave me the foundation to start anew," said Novi. "I am beginning a new career as a makeup artist," she continued. 

Novi with make-up equipment provided by IOM as part of reintegration support

Novi’s story mirrors that of thousands of other victims of trafficking (VOTs) in fraudulent online scams for financial gain - a growing trend in Southeast Asia. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in Indonesia recorded over 3,400 Indonesian citizens falling victim to trafficking for the online scamming industry between 2020-2023. Women, especially those with economic struggles or family problems, are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking for the online scamming industry.  

"Law enforcement must be one of the leading factors in eliminating trafficking because, without effective law enforcement, this crime will continue to grow and evolve due to ignorance of its actions," said Eny Rofiatul Ngazizah, IOM Indonesia’s Project Officer for Counter Trafficking. 

From 2005 - 2023, IOM has assisted 9,708 victims of trafficking, comprised of 6,516 females and 3,192 males. Women remain the main profile of the victim, and many of them are exploited in the domestic sectors. A whole-of-government approach to ensure the safe migration among female migrant workers is sought to prevent them from being trapped in the exploitation and trafficking situation. To assist the Government in achieving this, IOM Indonesia provides a wide variety of support, including identifying, referring, and protecting VOTs, as well as the detection, investigation, and prosecution of trafficking cases. 

Novi with a journalist and IOM’s staff during an interview at her parent’s house

"IOM provides psychosocial and stress management sessions to help VOTs recover from the trauma and become once again active members of the community. Additionally, IOM offers business management skills to enable the VOTs to run their own businesses in the future,” said Eny.

This story was written by Josephine Imelda, Communications Assistant with IOM Indonesia, 

SDG 5 - Gender Equality
SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth
SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 16 - Peace Justice and Strong Institutions