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Does labour migration do more harm than good?

Imas with her sons Alan (left) and Aji who stayed in Indonesia while she worked abroad
Imas with her sons Alan (left) and Aji who stayed in Indonesia while she worked abroad (Jessica Sallabank/IRIN)

Unlike its namesake, Jeddah Village boasts no sprawling shopping centres or skyscrapers soaring from the desert sands, but this cluster of homes in Indonesia’s Cireunghas district is intimately tied to Saudi Arabia’s commercial capital: many of the houses were built with money saved by locals who travelled there to work.
As in other parts of Indonesia, many overseas labourers from this corner of West Java Province are women employed as domestic workers in the Middle East. Civil society groups warn that economic migration is tearing apart the social fabric of Indonesia and other countries in the region as families are split up.
“How can it be good if generations of wives and mothers are away for years at a time?” asked Yuyu Marliah, who founded the Women’s Crisis Centre in Cireunghas and works closely with local families of labour migrants.
More than six million Indonesians live abroad and about 57 percent of those are women who have historically made up even a larger share of overseas workers, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Indonesian migrant workers sent home $8.3 billion in 2014, or about one percent of the country’s GDP.
“However, many of the households that receive these international remittances often remain poor, with remittances often being used for supporting daily consumption needs rather than productive investments,” ILO said in a recent report.
 There are few signs of wealth in the remote villages of Cireunghas district.
“If labour migration is all about making money and development, why after all these years are the poverty rates still the same if not worse in this area?” said Marliah, adding that social costs outweigh any economic benefit.

Men remarry or don't often stick around, children act up and drop out of school.

“Men remarry or don’t often stick around, children act up and drop out of school,” she said.
Research in other Asian countries that are sources of migrant labour has found similar patterns.
A 2008 survey produced by UNICEF found that children of female migrant workers from the Philippines tended to be susceptible to anger, confusion and apathy and fear. In 2013, a similar study in Sri Lanka by Save the Children raised concerns that more than one million children left behind by their mothers were vulnerable to neglect, emotional turmoil and were more likely to drop out of school.
Psychological scars
In Cireunghas, it’s clear that many children bear the psychological scars of separation for years, even after their mothers have returned.
“I came home from school and mummy wasn’t there,” said 12-year-old Alan, breaking into sobs at the memory of his mother’s three-year absence. 
“We had debts, I had to go,” said his mother Imas, who returned from a job in Abu Dhabi two years ago. “It was too hard to say goodbye, I couldn’t look back.”
Like many Indonesians, Imas and her son use only one name.
The debate about labour migration largely focuses on the protection of female domestic workers overseas. But more needs to be done to protect the welfare of the families left behind, according to civil society groups like the Jakarta-based Migrant Institute, which is campaigning for legally guaranteed access to education and healthcare for migrant workers’ children.
“Very little research has been done to help us understand the consequence of labour migration on children and we need more data to help us deal with it,” said Adi Candra Utama, the group’s executive director. “We are concerned that the long term impact on family life is a neglected issue and we could be facing a social crisis.”
The Jakarta-based Social Monitoring and Early Response Unit Research Institute interviewed 626 children, half of whom had been left in Indonesia as their mothers travelled overseas to work.
“We looked at the behavioural, emotional and health impact of children whose mothers had been gone for longer than six months,” Sofni Lubis, a researcher. “We are still assessing the data but there is evidence to suggest that migrant worker children are more susceptible to anti-social behaviour, hyperactivity and have difficulties expressing their feelings.”
The price of migration
Aisyah believes she paid the ultimate price for leaving her only Agus in the care of her mother, as many migrant workers do.
After she left for a two-year stint working as a maid in Saudi Arabia, she ached for her seven-year old son Agus who had been a diligent, quiet little boy. When she returned, not only did Aisyah find her husband had remarried with money she had been sending home, her little boy was hostile and badly behaved. 
At age 16, Agus was killed while speeding on a motorbike with his friends.
“I don’t know if things could have been different if I hadn’t gone to work in Saudi, but I regret going,” said Aisyah. “I was treated badly by my employers, I lost my husband, my son, and have no money to show for it.”
Utama, of the Migrant Institute, said that the cycle of economic migration leading to social problems is likely to repeat itself over generations.
“If children of migrant workers drop out of school, there’s a good chance they will become migrant works themselves,” he said. “And the amount of dinar or dirham they receive cannot compensate for the social loss.”

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