Fake passports fuel child trafficking to Hong Kong, Singapore

Sylvia Yu

HONG KONG, April 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Siti

was promised a high salary for working as a maid overseas, her

parents urged her to leave their rural home in Indonesia's

rugged East Java province.

There was only one problem - Siti was 14. Under Indonesian

law, she would have to wait another seven years before being

allowed legally to work abroad as a domestic worker.

To get around the legal requirement, Siti's traffickers

forged a passport with a new birth date. But she still looked

young, so they plucked and shaped her eyebrows in an effort to

pass her off as a 23-year-old.

"They trained me to lie about my age and to keep repeating,

'I am 23'," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Exploitative recruitment agencies are believed to have

trafficked hundreds of children to Hong Kong, Singapore and

other Asian countries to work as domestic workers by using

forged documents and bribing officials, rights groups say.

Victims also face prosecution for possessing fake papers,

they say.

The agency that recruited Siti sent her to Singapore first,

where she worked for a Swiss family, was given a bowl of instant

noodles a day and paid S$20 ($14) for 14 months' work.

"I cried every day. I was hungry," Siti said.

When she ran to the agency to ask for her wages, agents

instead sent her to work for another family in Singapore who

refused to pay for medical treatment after she injured her hand.

She returned to Indonesia but not long after, at the age of

17, she was flown by the same employment agency to Hong Kong to

work for yet another family.

"I've been abused by others. I lost my childhood. I only

knew hard work," Siti said.

There are more than 340,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong

Kong alone - more than half of them from the Philippines, with

Indonesia making up the next biggest group.

Most workers have migrated legally, driven by the

opportunity to send money to their families back home. Global

remittances are worth billions of dollars every year.

But among trafficked workers, children are the easiest prey

for criminal networks, campaigners say.

"This child is only a source of income for them. There are

thousands of other kids to be placed because someone is always

desperate for a job," said Maylin Hartwick, a campaigner from

Harmony Baptist Church who has helped Siti and other child

maids.

"FAST MONEY"

Regional governments bear responsibility for what happens to

their citizens and should take more action to prevent children

from being trafficked, activists said.

One relative success story has been the drop in underage

Filipino maids in Hong Kong since Manila changed the legal age

for women working abroad to 25 from 21 in 2006, said Cynthia

Abdon-Tellez, general manager of the Mission For Migrant Workers

charity.

Indonesia, another key source country for foreign domestic

workers, has taken a tough stance and recently suspended 190

employment agencies for illegal procedures, including forging

passports, an official said.

"It's about agencies making fast money," said Indonesia's

consul general in Hong Kong, Tri Tharyat.

Many women are issued with forged travel documents not

knowing they are fake or finding out just before they are due to

fly, he added.

Since introducing a new biometric system in 2013, the

consulate has discovered 30 forged passports among the passports

belonging to more than 150,000 Indonesian maids in Hong Kong,

Tharyat said.

VICTIMS TWICE OVER

Some victims of trafficking risk being prosecuted for being

in possession of forged documents given to them by recruitment

agencies, campaigners said.

Vica was only 15 when she left Indonesia to work in Hong

Kong, entering with a forged passport provided by her

traffickers that put her age as 23.

After returning to Indonesia for a while, she re-entered

Hong Kong using another forged passport given to her by another

agency.

When she applied for a new passport, the Indonesian

consulate had two different records of her date of birth. Soon

after, she was arrested by the Hong Kong immigration department

for having two identities and investigated.

Using a forged travel document and making a false

representation about one's identity to an immigration officer

can lead to up to 14 years' imprisonment or a maximum fine of

$150,000.

It took Vica 10 months to fight for her new visa and Hong

Kong identity card.

"(The process) made me want to cry," she said, adding that

she was scared and angry. "I told them (the different date of

birth) was not my fault."

Unlike 14 other Indonesian women she knows who were jailed

for having forged passports, Vica was able to avoid prison

because the authorities believed she was not complicit in the

crime.

Campaigners say that Hong Kong needs a comprehensive

anti-trafficking law to protect and prevent Indonesian women

from going to jail for being a victim of agencies using forged

passports.

"Many countries believe Indonesian women are criminals and

cheating. They have to see it from angle of human trafficking

and cheating," said Eni Lestari, chair of the International

Migrants Alliance.

Hong Kong's Security Bureau, in charge of law and order and

immigration, said the city already has in place comprehensive

laws to combat trafficking in persons.

"There is no sign that Hong Kong is being actively used by

syndicates as a destination or transit point for human

trafficking," it said in a statement.

($1 = 1.3996 Singapore dollars)

(Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters

Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers

humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights

and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more

stories)