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,
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
"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
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