The Dark Realities of Mail-Order Brides: A Global Human Trafficking Menace

It is often referred to as “praktik pengantin pesanan” in Indonesia, but in other terms, it is known as the notorious “mail-order bride” practice. This unconventional form of marriage involves intermediaries, or “mak comblang,” and is far from ordinary. It operates through intricate networks, relying on deception and numerous anomalies. Those involved in this practice employ cunning methods to circumvent Indonesian women’s unions with foreign men. The orchestrators order Indonesian women, marry them, and then take them abroad. Unscrupulous tactics such as document forgery, from marriage certificates to religious conversion records, are often employed. These networks operate from urban centers to remote villages. Victims are enticed with promises of a comfortable life, financial security, and various extravagant amenities. However, as the saying goes, “fortune favors the bold; misfortune cannot be avoided.” Instead of finding a decent life, the victims are subjected to a series of torments: physical and verbal abuse, sexual slavery, confinement, document confiscation, and forced unpaid labor.

According to the Migrant Workers’ Union, mail-order bride cases fall under the category of transnational crimes that threaten global security. This is due to the involvement of numerous covert and organized parties in the field. Those implicated include travel agencies and agents, brokers, consumers (men), brides, and even government officials, all contributing to this alarming phenomenon. What makes this issue even more complex is that it transcends national borders. This trade in human lives has evolved from matchmaking individuals from different countries into a human trafficking scheme.

In many cases, the victims of mail-order brides in Indonesia are depicted as ethnic Chinese women with low levels of education who leave for China seeking economic opportunities. Hariyanto, the General Chairperson of the National Leadership Council of the Migrant Workers’ Union (SBMI), attributes the root cause of Indonesians becoming victims of human trafficking, including mail-order brides, to poverty. He stated, “This human trafficking is structured and massive, primarily due to poverty. There is a lack of access to information. Second, there is poverty among victims in accessing legal assistance.” Many victims report their cases to the police, but they are often dismissed as mere domestic disputes, discouraging others from coming forward. However, several indicators can determine whether a case falls under the category of human trafficking, including document confiscation, fraud, document forgery, and violence.

Director-General for the Protection of Indonesian Citizens and Legal Assistance at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Joedha Nugraha, explains that the term “mail-order bride” refers to the Palermo Protocol, adopted by Law No. 21 of 2007 concerning the Eradication of Human Trafficking Crimes. This protocol outlines the criteria for identifying whether someone is a victim of human trafficking or not based on their acts, means, and purpose. For the means, Joedha highlights the presence of deception, such as the information potential victims receive when they join these enticing programs. There is also the process of exploitation, including unfulfilled agreements. For China, cases like Arum’s and the “brides” are seen as common domestic issues. However, for Indonesia, it is one form of human trafficking. These differing perspectives pose a significant challenge to resolution efforts.

Efforts to combat this issue are ongoing. Diplomatic initiatives at various levels have been taken, with Indonesian embassies and even the Foreign Minister directly addressing China to address these cases. Arum’s case is just one of 25 cases of human trafficking crimes with the mail-order bride modus operandi documented by the Indonesian Migrant Workers’ Union from 2017 to May 2020. Of the 25 cases, 18 victims have been repatriated; two are in the Consulate General of the Republic of Indonesia in Shanghai; four are still with their husbands; and one victim tragically passed away due to the delayed provision of protection.

Based on the region of origin, West Kalimantan is the province with the highest number of mail-order bride cases, with nine, followed by Jakarta with seven, and West Java with four. SBMI’s 2020 report on human trafficking in Indonesia, “Jeratan Perdagangan Orang Dalam Bisnis Penempatan Buruh Migran Indonesia,” reveals a total of 2,597 documented cases from 2010 to 2020. Three vulnerable groups with the highest rates of exploitation, slavery, discrimination, and double jeopardy are domestic workers (58.5%), fishery deckhands (11.1%), and mail-order brides (0.1%). The remaining 29.3% of reports come from other sectors. In the period from 2020 to June 2023, SBMI documented 1,343 cases of human trafficking crimes. The most affected group remains domestic workers (362 cases), followed by online fraud (279 cases), animal husbandry (218 cases), factory workers (193 cases), and migrant fishery deckhands (153 cases). The last three years have seen the highest number of male (882 victims) and female (461 victims) victims. Although male victims have increased due to the rise in online fraud cases, women remain the most vulnerable sector. The top five provinces with the most human trafficking cases are East Java, Central Java, West Java, East Nusa Tenggara, and West Nusa Tenggara.

To prevent and address this issue, multiple organizations and government bodies are taking action. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Indonesia regularly conducts awareness campaigns to educate the public, government officials, migrant workers, and potential migrants about safe migration. The IOM also provides capacity-building activities and public campaigns to various stakeholders, including the government, communities, religious leaders, and other community members.

The Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs has been actively providing services to victims of human trafficking and problematic migrant workers. These services include rehabilitation, welfare support, psychological assistance, vocational training, and entrepreneurship programs through Protection and Trauma Centers (RPTCs) and Integrated Centers located at 37 points throughout Indonesia. Additionally, the Ministry of Social Affairs is focused on empowering the economic stability of victims’ families, thereby reducing their vulnerability to exploitation abroad. They are also improving infrastructure in areas where high rates of human trafficking are reported, such as modern irrigation systems and clean water installations in Malaka, East Nusa Tenggara.

The Indonesian National Police, under the leadership of General Listyo Sigit Prabowo, established a Task Force for Combating Human Trafficking on June 4, 2023. This was in response to President Joko Widodo’s instruction to eradicate human trafficking and its protectors. The task force, led by Police Inspector General Asep Edi Suheri and Deputy Task Force Chief Police Inspector General Hary Sudwijanto, aims to eliminate human trafficking in Indonesia and protect Indonesian citizens from becoming victims.

Despite the existence of such task forces, the Indonesian National Police encourages collaboration with the community. Community involvement is essential, and individuals should report any potential human trafficking situations to law enforcement agencies. The government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is also working to raise public awareness to prevent individuals from becoming victims. They emphasize the importance of not being swayed by false promises when offered opportunities by Chinese individuals, especially those promising a luxurious life. The public is encouraged to report any suspicious activities to the government or law enforcement agencies. In collaboration with the Indonesian National Police, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is determined to tackle human trafficking cases, regardless of the modus operandi.

The mail-order bride phenomenon in Indonesia is far from a mere matchmaking service; it is a sinister form of human trafficking that spans national boundaries and threatens global security. The victims, often driven by poverty, are entangled in a web of deceit and exploitation. Efforts to combat this issue are multifaceted, involving awareness campaigns, victim support, and law enforcement actions. Collaboration between various government agencies, international organizations, and communities is essential to prevent further victimization and bring perpetrators to justice. The fight against human trafficking, including the mail-order bride modus operandi, remains a pressing issue that demands continued attention and action from all stakeholders involved.