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Domestic workers in Syria await repatriation

Sunarti, a migrant domestic worker from Indonesia in Syria, is in contact with her family, but stuck in the country. Many migrants are unable to leave the country due to the conflict
(Courtesy of Migrant Care)

Thousands of Indonesian domestic workers in crisis-hit Syria need help to get back home, activists say.

“We wrote to the government in June to bring the suffering of migrant workers in Syria to their attention,” Anis Hidaya, executive director of Migrant Care, a Jakarta-based NGO campaigning for migrant workers’ rights, told IRIN. “Today we demand the government protect its citizens and repatriate all those in danger.” 

In Indonesia, families of women and girls working in Syria continue to receive reports about the dire circumstances of their loved ones, including abandonment by employers. These women are particularly vulnerable to abuse in Syria, says Hidaya.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are more than 100,000 migrant workers in Syria, including some 15,000 who may be in need of evacuation assistance. Precise data is not available.

Prior to the crisis, the Indonesian Manpower and Transmigration Ministry estimated the number of Indonesians working in Syria at some 12,000. However, this figure is difficult to confirm as many migrant workers, mostly women, are undocumented, said the Indonesian embassy in Damascus. 

Syria witnessed a steady rise in the number of foreign domestic workers between 2001 and 2006, following the legalization of foreign nationals as domestic workers, said a 2012 report by the Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration (CARIM). 

In 2010, the Syrian authorities estimated the number of female domestic workers at 75,000-100,000, mainly from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Ethiopia.

In their offices and emergency call centres across Indonesia, Migrant Care employees help families call their daughters, sisters, and mothers to comfort them, learn about their situation, and talk about how to get them home. 

At a Migrant Care office in Jakarta last week, Hidaya received an urgent text message: “My daughter is in Aleppo in a house alone. Please - we cannot contact her for two weeks. We don’t know where she is.”

The NGO is getting more and more such messages, says Hidaya. 

“These women and girls are extremely vulnerable when they migrate for work in the first place,” she explained. “Now, living amid this violence and being ignored by their employers, they are defenseless and exposed to the horrors of the fighting.”


David Swanson/IRIN
A scene at the Sukarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta. Thousands of women leave their homes in Indonesia to work as domestic workers each year. Approximately 80 percent of all labour migrants are women
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Families struggle as more women work overseas
A scene at the Sukarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta. Thousands of women leave their homes in Indonesia to work as domestic workers each year. Approximately 80 percent of all labour migrants are women

Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Migrant workers on departure at Sukarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta

Exit permits

“Since the violence in Syria began, the government has directly helped 770 Indonesians leave,” said Tatang Razak, director of Indonesian citizen protection affairs at the Foreign Affairs Ministry. 

“The biggest issue we face in our evacuation operations is the unwillingness of the Syrian government to issue exit permits to workers without employer permission,” he explained, saying that the Indonesian government currently has custody of 348 Indonesians - mostly domestic workers - in safe houses in Damascus awaiting processing.

To date, IOM has provided evacuation assistance from Syria to 1,410 migrant workers from the Philippines, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, Moldova, Ukraine, South Sudan, Belarus, and Indonesia. A flight chartered by IOM returned 263 Filipino workers to the Philippines on 11 September.

Of those assisted by IOM, only nine were from Indonesia, though the pace of returns may be improving: Linda Al-Kalash, director of Tamkeen, a legal aid and human rights organization in Jordan, said that just this week she saw 117 newly-arrived Indonesian migrant domestic workers at the embassy in Amman. "They were in Jordan for barely a day before they were repatriated by government charter flight to Jakarta." 

To date, IOM has received requests for repatriation assistance from embassies of close to 5,000 third country nationals.

Some 700,000 documented Indonesian migrant workers go abroad to work every year, sending part of their earnings back to their families. According to the World Bank, registered remittances to Indonesia amounted to more than US$6 billion annually, the second-highest source of income after oil and gas.

The government estimates the total number of documented migrants abroad at 2.7 million, while the number of undocumented workers could be 2-4 times that amount.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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