Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Feeling a failure: returning home a ‘trafficked’ man in Indonesia

The after-stories of trafficked men get little attention, and both the men and their families are suffering as a result.

Rebecca Surtees
18 April 2019, 8.00am
A man in Indonesia.
Reddy Aprianto/Flickr. Creative Commons (by)

Large numbers of Indonesian men migrate each year for work in construction, factories, agriculture, on plantations and on fishing boats. Many end up exploited in ways that constitute human trafficking, suffering violence, deprivation, restricted freedom and severe exploitation as well as long periods of separation from their families. Being able to escape and return home was a turning point in these men’s lives. And yet reintegrating into their families after trafficking was not uncomplicated. While many family problems were caused by economics, tensions also resulted from long separations, fractured relationships, and frustration over ‘failed’ migration and unfulfilled expectations.

Experiences of long-term reintegration, particularly men’s experiences, are largely missing from research on human trafficking. And yet understanding the nature of and reasons for the problems men face after trafficking is key in designing and implementing programmes and policies for trafficked men to recover and reintegrate. This research with trafficked Indonesian men, 49 of whom were interviewed in the lead-up to this article, is designed to help fill that gap.

"I am a failed person."

Coming home without money

Money – to build or repair a home, buy land, pay school fees for children and to cover daily living needs – is the main driver for most Indonesian men who migrate for work, including for those who end up trafficked. Yet most of the people with whom we spoke were unable to remit or return with money. Instead, most had incurred substantial debt in the course of their migration. The responsibility of married men to support their wife and children – and the ‘failure’ of trafficked men to do so – was a central tension in their lives and families after trafficking.

Financial problems also impacted men’s relations with parents and parents-in-law. One man’s parents had sold their land to cover his migration debt and, when he came home without money, they refused to see him. Another man, in debt to his parents for migration costs, was living in their home with his wife and their son, and the environment was tense. Money was a constant issue in the household: “On Sundays, the debt to my parents always came up ... How could I pay it off quickly? Saving IDR 100,000 (US$9) already took ten days so it was a slow process … We argued constantly.”

Although some unmarried men faced less pressure and were cared for by parents, economic issues were also a source of tension for these men. One father migrated shortly after his trafficked son’s return, to support him while he recovered from his exploitation. Some men could not return home because they were unable to repay their migration debt. Some worked temporarily in Jakarta or other districts to earn money to send home, repay their debt, or with which to return to their families.

Reactions and relationships within the family

While on the surface much tension was about money, it was often as much about unfulfilled expectations around migration. These could lead to disappointment, blame and recrimination from family members. Trafficking separations also created emotional distance between men and their families; feelings of relief, gratitude and happiness at return often gave way in the face of these pressures. Tensions emerged in men’s family relationships with wives, children and parents.

Reuniting with their wives was an important moment for married men. Nonetheless, problems emerged in marriages after trafficking. Some were predictable and manageable tensions. Very commonly, though, tensions were deep-seated and intractable. One man said that he and his wife had been happy before his migration, but lack of contact while trafficked, amplified by no remittances, meant that his marriage was now on the verge of collapse: “My family even thought I was dead since they never heard from me for two and a half years”, he said. Lack of contact destroyed some marriages. One man explained how his friend’s wife demanded a divorce in a rare phone call home: “He cried a lot in my lap, ‘Please tell the captain, I want to go home.’ … [He was] already neglected over there, no salary, even fighting over food. And then his wife is asking to divorce.”

Another source of tension with wives was men’s failure at migration, as one explained:

“[I said] I am a failed person. When I fail, you should support me. Let’s do it together. One of us fails it means all of us fail.” … Then she said, ‘The one who failed is you, right?’ […] When I was successful … we went through it together. Why, when I am down, I am alone?”

Some wives worried that their husbands had spent money frivolously, not worked hard enough or had relationships with other women while abroad. Another tension was when men had spent time ‘in prison’ (i.e. in detention as irregular migrants abroad).

Children too were affected by their father’s absence. Most men struggled to maintain contact after they entered into exploitative employment. Not being able to remit money meant ‘failing’ in the paternal role. One man described a broken relationship with his children because of that he was irresponsible and had not sent money home to raise them: “There was a time when my relationship with my children was broken. … They only heard one side of the story from their family or the community surrounding them ... that I am the kind of person who does not take responsibility, or I am a bad person.”

Men also suffered for having failed to remit money to parents, to provide them with support, particularly in old age. One man broke down in tears over his failure to help his parents: “I was migrating because I wanted to seek money for my parents’ medication.” Many men spoke about their parents’ profound sadness and distress when they returned home ill, thin, depressed and stressed. One man said, “Sometimes my father looks so sad looking at me, as I went home skinny…, they despaired and sometimes they cried.” In some cases, ‘failure’ seemed to have lessened men in the eyes of their parents. As one man explained, “[My] parents now see me as incapable, undeserving. I no longer feel part of the family.” Some parents thought their son was a criminal. They equated detention of irregular migrants with their having committed a crime, which, as one man explained, led to his rejection: “They knew I came from prison. Only my wife still accepted me … even my own biological parents did not want to accept me at all. … And other relatives did not comfort me. They stayed away from me.”

Impact of trafficking

The impact of trafficking – being stressed, traumatised, physically unwell – also meant that men acted and reacted in ways that upset family members, creating further distance and amplifying resentment. “My feeling was like getting fed-up, annoyed,” one man said. “Wanting to get angry but at whom, I asked. I was confused.” Some men spoke about being traumatised by their exploitation, inhibiting their ability to behave and interact with children in healthy ways. One man described being emotional and easily angered, which took a toll on his children: “[I was] unstable and shaken. I thought a lot about the costs and the unfortunate events when I was there. I didn’t know where to look for help. … The kids were in shock. I got angry easily.”

At the same time, many men often kept some (or most) details of their exploitation secret, as one explained: “I don’t want to make my wife sad. … [I did not tell her] the terrible things I experienced in the deep sea.” Not knowing about men’s exploitation meant families did not understand their difficult or erratic behaviours, leading to feelings of frustration, disappointment and anger.

Human trafficking took a substantial toll on the lives of these men. Some of their families were also shaken by this experience; other families were destroyed.

Supporting trafficked men’s reintegration requires a better understanding of the family environments to which they return, particularly gendered expectations around migration and men’s role as breadwinner. It requires thinking beyond the immediacy of economics, to disentangle the interplay of economics and family expectations in men’s lives. It also requires thinking about how trafficking has profoundly affected not only trafficked men but also their wives, children and extended family.

A longer version of this article was first published in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 10

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