Exploitation of Indonesian trafficked men, women and children and implications for support

Foreword | Protecting and providing support to victims is a central component of the international and Australian response to combat trafficking in persons. The complex and diverse nature of people trafficking means that victims may experience a range of exploitative conditions across a variety of commercial and domestic settings. In this paper, the support needs of trafficking victims are considered through analysis of their experiences of exploitation and abuse, as contained in the International Organization for Migration’s Indonesia Counter-Trafficking Module database.

The complexity and diversity of trafficking and exploitative experiences is reflected in the supports and assistance needs of trafficked persons that appear equally diverse and complex. Clearly, support services must tailor their responses to individual circumstances and needs, and respond using a multifaceted, victim-centred approach. While analysing the experiences of trafficked persons can assist in developing appropriate support services, evaluative research is the next step in ensuring the effectiveness of the supports provided.

Adam Tomison

The diverse, evolving and often transnational nature of people trafficking means that trafficked men, women and children can have very different experiences of exploitation and needs for support. That trafficked persons experience a range of exploitative situations across a range of industries (IOM 2007; OWWA-ILO 2009) raises issues about how victim services should respond. There is currently a range of anti-trafficking assistance and support measures available to trafficked persons, although availability differs across regions and countries. These are based around an assessment of health consequences, safety and security, identification, economic consequences, social consequences, legal issues, gender/sex, type of exploitation, and return and reintegration.

In this paper, the nature of the assistance that should be provided to trafficked persons is considered through an assessment of the exploitation and abuse of Indonesian victims of trafficking collected by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Indonesia Counter-Trafficking Module (CTM). Prior research, academic literature and a variety of victim support materials are used to examine the different support needs of men, women and children trafficked for both sexual and labour exploitation.

Brief consideration is given to the situation of trafficked persons who reject or choose not to seek support, the reasons behind these decisions and their consequences, particularly the distinctive situation of men.

Experiences of trafficking among Indonesian men, women and children

Southeast Asia is known to be a significant source of trafficked persons. This paper draws on data collected by IOM Indonesia in its CTM regarding the experiences of 210 men, 2,604 women and 887 child victims of trafficking (see Box 1). Analysis of this dataset revealed that a large proportion of domestically and transnationally trafficked Indonesians reported having been subjected to exploitative conditions, including sexual and labour exploitation in both sex and non-sex labour contexts. During their exploitation, victims experienced a range of abuses, such as psychological abuse (77%; n=2,766), physical abuse (49%; n=1,763), sexual abuse (including rape—all references to sexual abuse within this paper include incidents involving rape—23%; n=820), deprivation of supply of food and water (53%; n=1,970), ideological pressure (35%; 1,294), forced consumption of alcohol (7%; n=262) and forced consumption of drugs (5%; n=196). Further, 96 percent (n=3,343) of women and 90 percent (n=323) of men reported having been subject to one or more forms of abuse when trafficked.

Box 1: International Organisation for Migration, Counter Trafficking Module

In 1999, IOM developed and implemented the CTM, which is the largest global database containing primary data on trafficked people. The CTM facilitates the management of IOM’s direct assistance to trafficked people; specifically, the Return, Recovery and Reintegration Program. In doing so, it maps the experience of trafficked people and contains a wealth of information regarding the characteristics and histories of trafficked persons, the nature of the trafficking process (including recruitment and transportation methods), patterns of exploitation and abuse, instances of re-trafficking and the nature of assistance provided by IOM.

From 2000 to 2011, IOM provided direct assistance on approximately 4,000 occasions to Indonesians who had been trafficked. Data analysed for this paper includes qualitative and quantitative information relating to 3,701 trafficked Indonesians identified between January 2005 and January 2010.

Exploitation in non-sex labour industries

The vast majority of trafficked persons were exploited for labour outside of the sex industry (84%; n=3,108)—of whom 11.5% were males and 88.5% were females.


All trafficked males in the dataset were exploited for labour in non-sex sectors, most commonly as plantation, factory and construction workers. A large proportion of workers exploited in these sectors experienced psychological abuse and were deprived of food and water. Factory workers were more likely to report psychological abuse (76%) than plantation (67%) or construction workers (60%). They were also more likely to be forced to consume drugs (9% cf 1% for plantation workers and 4% for construction workers), which is most likely a result of offenders seeking to make individuals work longer and harder.

A larger proportion of plantation workers were exposed to ideological pressure (42%) compared with construction workers (21%) or factory workers (5%).


Women were most likely to be trafficked for the purpose of domestic service (62%; n=2,075) and reported high levels of a range of abuses, including being subjected to the highest level of psychological (85%) and physical abuse (60%). They were also more likely to report being deprived of food or water (62%) and suffering ideological pressure (41%).

Analysis of the IOM Indonesia CTM data indicates that overall, women are more likely than men to experience a range of abuses, while being exploited in sectors other than the sex industry (see Figure 1). Women are more likely to endure psychological abuse (80% cf 64%), physical abuse (54% cf 15%) and sexual abuse (13% cf 0.5%), while men are slightly more likely to be deprived of food and water (59% cf 57%) and be forced to use drugs (3% cf 1%). Trafficked persons may be forced or coerced to use drugs and/or alcohol for a range of reasons, including but not limited to the following:

  • to render them more compliant;
  • to create a dependency that forces the addicted individual to rely on the trafficker as their supplier; and
  • to enable individuals to work harder and for longer, or in the case of prostitution, to make a person more submissive or able to see more clients (IOM 2007).

Figure 1: Experiences of abuse among adults trafficked for the purpose of exploitation in the non-sex labour sector (%)

a: The category ‘sexual abuse’ includes rape

Source: AIC, IOM Indonesia CTM dataset [computer file]

A large proportion of both men and women trafficked for the purpose of non-sexual labour exploitation were also subjected to excessive working hours; that is, having to work more than eight hours per day or be on call at all hours (75% cf 85%), full deprivation of wages (46% cf 77%), lack of healthcare services when ill (74% cf 57%) and poor sanitary living conditions (69% cf 33%).


Child victims of trafficking contained in the dataset were mostly trafficked for domestic work (40%; n=357), followed by waitressing (16%; n=139). Male children were primarily trafficked for work in plantations (27%; n=38), while female children were most often trafficked for domestic work (48%; n=356).

Girls exploited for labour were more likely than boys to report experiencing a range of abuses, including:

  • psychological abuse—for example, threats to hurt them or their family (65% cf 36%);
  • physical abuse (49% cf 20%);
  • sexual abuse (15% cf 4%);
  • deprivation of food and water (49% cf 36%);
  • ideological pressure—for example, being forbidden by employers to pray (29% cf 23%); and
  • forced consumption of drugs (3% cf 1%).

While the number of trafficked boys is too small for meaningful industry-based breakdowns and subsequent analysis (n=148), 84 percent (n=125) of boys reported having been subject to one or more forms of abuse when trafficked. The types of exploitation and associated abuses were the same as for adult men.

The majority of trafficked girls were exploited in domestic service and many were psychologically (81%) and physically (71%) abused. Nineteen percent (n=56) were sexually abused. Girls in domestic service were more likely than those exploited in the sex industry to experience physical abuse (71% cf 40%), to be deprived of food and water (62% cf 45%), and to suffer ideological pressure (42% cf 33%).

In addition, a large proportion of both boys and girls exploited for non-sex labour experienced excessive working hours (50% cf 70%), deprivation of full wages (34% cf 69%), lack of healthcare services when ill (43% cf 51%) and poor sanitary living conditions (45% cf 35%).

Exploitation in the sex industry

Sixteen percent of trafficked persons were exploited in the sex industry, all of whom were female (n=593). Of this group, 35 percent were girls (n=205). Figure 2 presents the range of abuses experienced by women and girls trafficked for the purpose of exploitation within the sex industry.

The proportion of women trafficked for exploitation in the sex industry who experienced excessive working hours, full deprivation of wages, lack of healthcare services when ill and poor sanitary living conditions was similar to that among women trafficked into non-sex sectors (98% cf 96%). Although a higher proportion of women exploited in the sex industry were forced to use alcohol (36% cf 1%) and drugs (24% cf 1%) than those in the non-sex industry.

Women trafficked into the sex industry were also more likely to experience sexual abuse (69% cf 13%) than those in the non-sex industry. Women can be forced, coerced, threatened or deceived into working in the sex industry, whereby any sexual contact may be considered an assault or abuse. However, other women may be knowingly recruited for sex work but were deceived as to the conditions of their employment; for example, where the nature of their exploitation may have involved debt bondage. In such cases, these women may not see sex work as abusive in general, but may still be subjected to non-consensual sexual behaviour that they deem to be assaultive.

Girls trafficked for exploitation in the sex industry (n=205; 23% of trafficked children) were significantly more likely to be forced to consume alcohol (40% cf 1%) and drugs (23% cf 3%) than children trafficked for labour exploitation. The higher prevalence of forced drug and/or alcohol use among children exploited in the sex industry is most likely due to the need for greater compliance of victims due to the nature of the work. They were also more vulnerable to psychological abuse (78% cf 65%), sexual abuse (81% cf 15%) and ideological pressure (33% cf 29%).

While some child victims of trafficking may have been underage sex workers who consented to doing sex work, their status as a minor (under the age of 18 years) means the nature of the work is considered one of the worst forms of child labour and is thus prohibited under the International Labour Organization’s Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (ILO 1999), which has been ratified by both Indonesia and Australia. Therefore, as minors, they should all (by definition) be considered victims of sexual exploitation whether or not they were voluntarily recruited.

Figure 2: Experiences of abuse among women and girls trafficked for the purpose of exploitation in the sex industry (%)

a: The category ‘sexual abuse’ includes rape

Source: AIC, IOM Indonesia CTM dataset [computer file]

Support needs based on gender and age

Gender plays a significant role in providing targeted and appropriate service needs to trafficked persons. Women and girls are more likely to be identified as trafficked and therefore are more likely than men and boys to receive protection and support (Gallagher & Pearson 2008). This does not mean that females are trafficked at a greater rate than males; however, it does contribute to the perception that trafficked persons are predominantly women and girls (Gallagher & Pearson 2008). In reality, as demonstrated through analysis of the IOM database, trafficked males and females often have different experiences requiring different support needs to assist with recovery and reintegration.

While both trafficked men and women in the IOM Indonesia sample experienced abuse in a range of sectors, there were differences that are important to consider when providing support. The primary difference between the sexes relates to the sexual abuse of females regardless of the type of exploitation for which they were trafficked. Support for females is further complicated by their greater likelihood of being subjected to a greater number of abuses (see Figures 1 and 2). Trafficked women in the sample experienced an average of 3.4 forms of abuse, while trafficked men experienced an average of 2.2 forms of abuse. For men, the most common form of abuse was psychological abuse, followed by deprivation of food and water.

Trafficked children may also require specialised support needs due to a range of factors, including but not limited to, the impact on physical, psychological and/or emotional development, interrupted education and a lack of suitable guardianship.

Support needs of trafficked women

The experiences of Indonesian women and girls trafficked for both sexual and labour exploitation reflected those found in literature examining experiences of trafficked women more broadly. Further, the range of abuses experienced by trafficked Indonesian women and girls also highlighted the complexity of their support needs.

Support services based on the needs of women and girls may include physical and psychological treatment for persons who experience actual or threatened sexual or physical violence, acquire sexually transmitted diseases or HIV, become pregnant, request an abortion or have already endured forced or coerced abortions, require infertility and reproductive health services, suffer miscarriages, have menstrual problems and women with dependent children.

It is not uncommon for women who have experienced abuse or trauma to initially reject assistance in favour of dealing with the situation on their own. Allimant and Ostapiej-Piatkowski (2011: 8) suggest this may be due to ‘diversity in the way violence itself is perceived, understood and incorporated into individual women’s world-views’.

Such views are influenced by factors including social attitudes, cultural values, spiritual beliefs, rituals and the traditions of the woman and her community (Allimant & Ostapiej-Piatkowski 2011), as well as laws and regulations. Some women may also refuse support for fear of reproach, punishment, retaliation, or being ostracised from their communities, social networks and families (IOM 2007). This could happen for a number of reasons, including that the trafficked person was unable to fulfil the purpose or motivation for going abroad, for example, to gain employment and send remittances back home to meet the family’s financial and other needs. Further, trafficked women may not accept or seek assistance because their trafficking experience involved drug use or sex work, as recognition of this work could have particular and severe consequences for the women (within their family) or for the women and their families in countries where these activities are illegal (IOM 2007).

However, given time, some women subsequently find they are in need of assistance as the seriousness of their victimisation and the lasting consequences become apparent (OWWA-ILO 2009; Surtees 2007) and they develop trust in authorities and supports. Their needs can also change as their understanding of what has happened to them is understood or challenged, for example, as a result of being in an environment (eg a country that prohibits and punishes sexual violence) that ‘does not offer confirmation of their previously integrated world views’ (Allimant & Ostapiej-Piatkowski 2011: 6).

Support needs of trafficked men

Gender-based misconceptions have often underpinned a failure of governments, non-government organisations and service delivery agencies to provide appropriate protection, assistance and services to trafficked males. Given the traditional response to trafficking in persons has been to concentrate on women trafficked into the sex industry, it is not unusual that return and reintegration provisions are modelled on support services designed to rehabilitate females exploited for sexual purposes (Gallagher & Pearson 2008; Surtees 2008). As Ezeilo (2010: 18) notes ‘[g]ender misconceptions often lead authorities not to consider men as possible trafficked persons’.

In some instances, gender bias is entrenched in legislation, policy and eligibility criteria of victim services, which results in men being neglected or unrecognised as trafficking victims (Gallagher & Pearson 2008). As a consequence, support services may fail to adequately respond, or may not respond at all, to the needs of trafficked men.

Gallagher and Pearson (2008) suggest that, while there has been progress in understanding who the victims are and countries have begun to incorporate a wider understanding of human trafficking into legislation and policy, the misconception that women are victims of trafficking while men are illegal immigrants still permeates commentary and responses to the issue. As a result, women and children are more likely to be correctly identified and offered support services, while men are misidentified and denied access to protection and support. In some cases, even when men are correctly identified, eligibility criteria deny them access to services for trafficked people (Gallagher & Pearson 2008).

Moreover, men are often deterred from seeking or accepting assistance because of the stigma, discrimination or shame associated with being an identified victim of trafficking (Surtees 2007). Brunovskis and Surtees (2007) explain that trafficked men may also reject any assistance offered to them, or choose not to seek help, for several reasons:

  • they do not see themselves as victims;
  • they believe they will experience problems with social integration resulting from a lack of community empathy toward their experiences of exploitation;
  • they do not perceive their experience as aligning with extreme conceptions of trafficking and associated exploitation;
  • they feel that their compliance in the trafficking process (agreeing to go abroad, entering a country illegally, working illegally) means they are not really victims; and
  • they believe that their exploitative situation is better than alternative situations in which they have no employment or ability to earn.

Given the large proportion of men reporting some form of abuse and the range of abuses experienced by men in the IOM Indonesia sample (ie psychological and physical abuse, deprivation of food and water, ideological pressure, forced consumption of drugs), there is clearly a need for support services to better respond to the needs of trafficked men and to develop approaches that do not stigmatise them as trafficking victims, thereby preventing them from seeking help (Andrevski, Joudo Larsen & Lyneham 2013).

Further research by Surtees (2008) reiterates the need for organisations to respond appropriately to the needs of trafficked men by adapting current programs or developing male-specific services. To achieve this, there must be consideration of the specific needs of trafficked men based on their trafficking experience and their familial, social and cultural circumstances.

Support needs of trafficked children

The trafficking of children and adolescents follows the pattern for adults with a few exceptions. Frequently, the exploitation takes place in the informal economy (ie economic-based activities operating outside the protection and regulation of states), where they are forced to beg, sell small items on the streets, perform for tourists, or are exploited as domestic servants in private settings (OSCE 2008). They may also be forced into illegal activities, such as child soldiering and child pornography.

During a trafficking experience, a child is exposed to physically and psychologically damaging circumstances that are dangerous to their physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, moral and social wellbeing. This can hinder the potential for normal and healthy development (IOM 2007; US Department of Health and Human Services nda). The consequences are particularly acute because the abuses occur throughout the crucial developmental stages of the young person’s life. Trafficking aggravates an already difficult and complex formative stage when young people develop their identity, self-esteem and understandings of the world and their place in it (IOM 2007).

IOM (2007) suggests that children who are exposed to the chronic abuse and stress intrinsic in trafficking situations acquire personalities and coping mechanisms suited for survival that are not necessarily appropriate once they have been removed and reintegrated into a non-threatening environment. Children may display sexualised or highly aggressive behaviour, or have issues with substance use, dissociation, self-harm or other dysfunctional ways of dealing with stress and anxiety. This is problematic, as behaviours and attitudes acquired during the developmental phase tend to continue into adulthood, making it difficult for young people to transition into normal adult life (IOM 2007). Moreover

children often assume that something must be wrong with themselves, and that they are therefore responsible for the ills that have taken place or the bad deeds that s/he has done (IOM 2007: 210–211).

Trafficking interferes with a young person’s education and hinders learning, not only from being deprived of schooling but also because the severe and prolonged stress of the trafficking situation can cause cognitive developmental delays or regression (IOM, UNGIFT & LSHTM 2009). If their trafficking experience involves participating in ‘adult activities’, children may also acquire behaviours, perceptions, attitudes and language beyond their age (IOM, UNGIFT & LSHTM 2009).

In the IOM (2007: 212) Handbook on Direct Assistance for Victims of Trafficking, it is stated that

once in the trafficking setting, sexual abuse and exploitation of children is common, even for children who are not working directly in prostitution. Sexual abuse of children results in significant immediate and long-term adverse health consequences, including sexually transmitted infections, injuries to genitals, future sexual risk-taking and substance abuse, difficulty developing healthy sexual relationships, depression, and suicide.

Analysis of IOM Indonesia data confirmed that sexual abuse of girls was common among those trafficked into the sex industry (81%) and was also experienced by 19 percent of girls trafficked for domestic service.

Children and adolescents require support services that are appropriate not only for their biological age, but that are suitable for their mental and physical stage of development (IOM, UNGIFT & LSHTM 2009). Support programs and activities that recognise young people’s level of development ‘help children and adolescents to reclaim and further develop their competencies for an active and meaningful life’ (IOM 2007: 210–211).

Support needs based on the type of exploitation

Given the range of trafficking situations and the reality that many victims are trafficked for a variety of purposes that include combinations of labour and sexual exploitation (Joudo Larsen, Andrevski & Lyneham 2013), service providers do not differentiate trafficked persons by type of exploitation when administering treatment and assistance. Instead, the majority of service providers stress the importance of providing individualised care based on the unique circumstances of the trafficked individual. Yet while the need for individualised service provision is paramount, consideration should also be given to the types of support needs often associated with different types of exploitation.

Labour exploitation

There is currently limited research data on the assistance needs for individuals trafficked into sectors other than the sex industry. However, health and safety standards in exploitative conditions are generally very low, with individuals who are trafficked into high-risk situations often experiencing hazards, abuses and violations related to their working conditions, living conditions and health (IOM, UNGIFT & LSHTM 2009). This finds support in the IOM Indonesia data where high levels of abuse and exploitative working conditions were reported by both men and women trafficked for exploitation in non-sex labour sectors (see Figure 1). As such, legal, financial and medical assistance are common concerns for individuals trafficked for labour exploitation.

While victim support services have tended to focus on the health problems of persons trafficked for sexual exploitation, those trafficked for labour exploitation have a unique set of health needs (Clawson, Dutch & Williamson 2009). Depending on the nature and setting of their work, persons trafficked for labour exploitation may be exposed to physical abuses and dangerous conditions that can result in a range of physical injuries and illnesses. Medical problems are often exacerbated by inadequate clothing and equipment necessary to safely perform the work (Fassa cited in Clawson, Dutch & Williamson 2009; US Department of Health and Human Services nda).

Legal and financial assistance is sought for many reasons—in relation to the original recruitment process, violations by employers, unpaid wages, illegal termination and other contractual problems, and to defend violations or offences committed by the migrants themselves (OWWA-ILO 2009).

Sexual exploitation

Analysis of data collected by IOM Indonesia revealed that women and girls trafficked for exploitation in the sex industry were subjected to high levels of a range of abuses, including physical, psychological and sexual abuse, among others. The consequences of sexual exploitation are such that different responses are required than those for non-sexual exploitation. Often sexual exploitation provokes negative reactions and rejection from family and community members (IOM 2007) and can have lingering physical and psychological effects (Clawson, Dutch & Williamson 2009).

Sexual violence and abuse is common, not only for women trafficked into the sex industry but also for women and children trafficked for exploitation outside the sex industry (eg forced labour, domestic servitude and forced, servile or early/child marriage; IOM 2007). Zimmerman et al. (2006) found that 90 percent of victims reported being forced or intimidated into sex or doing something sexual during their trafficking experience. Among the IOM Indonesia sample, 69 percent of women trafficked for exploitation in the sex industry and 14 percent of women trafficked for domestic service reported being sexually abused.

While all trafficked people are at risk of physical and psychological harm, those trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation have increased vulnerability (Zimmerman et al. 2006). This group is often exposed to sexual abuses for increased duration and frequency, and have a greater number of clients, especially if they are moved between different locations. These factors escalate the chances of contracting infections and diseases related to sexual health, particularly within the first six months of exploitation (Zimmerman et al. 2006). It has been reported that nearly half of trafficked women have been diagnosed or treated for a range of sexually transmitted infections through their engagement in commercial sex, sexual violence, experiences of coerced sex and unsafe sex (Zimmerman et al. 2006). Trafficked women who are sexually exploited may also display and need to be treated for psychological harms that include shame, grief, fear, distrust, hatred of men, self-hatred, suicidal ideation and self-harming, post-traumatic stress, depression, insomnia, persistent self-loathing and traumatic bonding (US Department of Health and Human Services ndb).

As has been found generally with the treatment and care of victims of sexual assault, intimate or intrusive medical examinations may re-traumatise victims and trigger reminders of past abuses (Astbury 2006; IOM, UN.Gift & LSHTM 2009). Moreover, trafficked migrants often come from source countries where their culture or laws are such that they harbour guilt and shame about the sexual violence they have experienced (Allimant & Ostapiej-Piatkowski 2011).


Protecting and providing support to trafficked persons is a central component of the international and Australian response to people trafficking. As trafficking and related exploitation affects men, women and children worldwide, there is a requirement for support services and programs that are capable of addressing the needs of all trafficked persons. This requires responses to be highly flexible such that programs can be tailored to individual experiences of harm and needs, and being sensitive to the sex, age, language and cultural background of trafficked persons.

Analysis of the IOM Indonesia CTM data has provided some important information for consideration when determining the support needs of trafficked persons. In part, it has confirmed what was already widely acknowledged regarding the vulnerability of women and girls—women and girls were more likely than men and boys to experience psychological, physical and sexual abuse. However, the analysis also draws much needed attention to the experiences of trafficked men, revealing that men also experienced a range of abuses, such as psychological and physical abuse, and ideological pressure. Trafficked men in the sample were also more likely than women to be deprived of food and water and forced to use drugs.

Importantly, it is clear that vulnerabilities exist regardless of the sector into which an individual is trafficked. Although women trafficked into the sex industry were more likely to experience sexual abuse and be forced to use drugs and alcohol, women trafficked into domestic service reported higher levels of psychological and physical abuse, and a proportion also suffered sexual assault. They were more likely to be deprived of food and water and suffer ideological pressure. These findings emphasise the need for tailored approaches and have clear implications for support programs.

Effective policy and program responses need to be informed by strong evidence. The IOM Indonesia CTM database presents a unique opportunity to develop knowledge about the exploitative and abusive experiences of trafficked persons. An increased understanding of those treatments and interventions that are most helpful in aiding/assisting trafficked individuals to successfully recover and reintegrate needs to follow. Evaluation of current support programs and an assessment of client needs would be of significant value in better framing services to victim needs and should be a focus for future research.


All URLs correct at December 2012

About the authors

Jacqueline Joudo Larsen is a principal research analyst in the Violent and Serious Crime Monitoring Program at the Australian Institute of Criminology and former manager of the Trafficking in Persons Research Program.

Samantha Lyneham is a research analyst working within the AIC’s Trafficking in Persons Research Program.