Striving to provide protection for overseas domestic workers

Published: 5 January 2016 10:22 CET

By Jessica Sallabank, IFRC

Migration was arguably the defining humanitarian issue of 2015, and many Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies increased their operations in migrant assistance and protection in response to these growing needs.

Alongside refugees and asylum seekers, labour migrants are increasingly becoming a cause for humanitarian concern. They are far from home and often denied access to healthcare and contact with their families. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is aiming to capitalise on its unique cross-border network and auxiliary role with governments to provide better protection and services to overseas labour migrants. The 2014 Doha Dialogue and the 2015 Manila Conference on migration enabled National Societies from key migrant sending and receiving countries to commit to playing a greater role in what some fear could be a humanitarian ticking time bomb.

But at the community level, efforts to help labour migrants are also gaining momentum within a number of National Societies. In Indonesia, a country with around 6.5 million citizens working overseas, the authorities and civil society groups are in a constant battle to ensure female domestic workers have the protection they need before, during, and after they leave the country for employment.  The Indonesian Red Cross has recently started to assist the authorities in providing support to female domestic workers who are returning to their families after a lengthy period away.

“Many female domestic workers come from poor or remote areas,” said Leo Pattiasina, head of the Indonesian Red Cross Social Services Sub Division. “Some come back with a success story, but many of them come back with serious or chronic injuries. Others are traumatised from physical or sexual abuse. It’s often difficult for these women to access health and psychosocial support services. We think the Red Cross expertise can be put to good use in these situations.”

In 2013, in recognition of a growing need to fill this protection gap, the National Society signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Indonesia’s Department of Manpower. As one of the first steps to strengthen cooperation in migrant worker services, the Red Cross and local authorities have started organising Support Group Sessions in which returnee domestic workers can share their experiences with other women and get support from the Red Cross’ psychosocial support experts.  “If we are going to strengthen the support of domestic workers when they return, then we need to hear from them what their needs are,” explained Leo.

The first-ever Indonesian Red Cross Support Group Session took place in the village of Cireunghas, in West Java Province in March 2014. In partnership with a local civil society group Women’s Crisis Centre (WCC), 30 women were brought together for the first-event of its kind in the area. A second support group recently took place in June 2015 in Cilamaya Kulon, also in West Java.

“In Javanese culture, people are typically very closed and reluctant to share their feelings, especially when it comes to personal matters,” said Pattiasina. “Trauma and depression can go undetected, or manifest in physical problems like poor sleep or diet, it can also affect other members of the family,” he added, saying that as the day went on, the women became more confident to speak up.

Alongside the team of National Society volunteers, two professional Red Cross psychologists helped to assess the mental state of some of the participants and identified the types of services returning domestic workers would need.

“This is only the first exploratory step,” said Mrs Yuyu Marliah from the WCC. “But it’s really important in poor villages like Cireunghas where we don’t have access to health and psychosocial support services. It’s a good idea for the National Society to contribute their resources and expertise and partner with frontline organisations like ours.”

As the number of female domestic workers coming back from overseas continues, the Red Cross plans to extend the support group programme to other areas of Indonesia including East Java, Central Java and Nusa Tenggarra Barat.

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