Josef Nae Soi, the vice governor of East Nusa Tenggara province, said officials will work with police to try to find the missing girls cited in AP's report. He said officials also are strengthening checks at airports and seaports to block attempts by traffickers to smuggle migrant workers abroad. In the past two months, officials have rescued 386 people who were in the process of being smuggled, he said.
Soi's comments come one day after the AP revealed in a report that possibly hundreds of teenage girls have vanished from East Nusa Tenggara after falling prey to illegal recruiters promising well-paying jobs in neighboring Malaysia.
"We will work closely with police to find out the whereabouts of those who are still missing, including the victims named in the AP report," Soi said. "We will cooperate with Interpol through police-to-police cooperation, so that we can resolve this problem."
The missing girls are among thousands of Indonesians who have migrated to wealthier countries in Asia and the Middle East for work, only to die or disappear. The National Agency for Placement and Protection of Indonesian Workers has counted more than 2,600 cases of dead or missing Indonesian migrants since 2014. And even those numbers mostly leave out people who are recruited illegally — an estimated 30 percent of Indonesia's 6.2 million migrant workers.
The girls who have vanished reflect part of the hidden toll of global migration. The AP has documented more than 61,000 migrants dead or missing worldwide since 2014, a tally that keeps rising . In drought-plagued East Nusa Tenggara, where unemployment is high and farming difficult, migrating to Malaysia for work has long been a common practice. Those who find jobs as maids or on plantations can earn more money in a few years than in a lifetime at home.
But in recent years, traffickers have moved into the province hunting for new, unsuspecting workers — particularly teenage girls who don't understand the danger. Many girls end up working as maids for families who overwork and underpay them. Others are forced into prostitution.
"We really appreciate the report made by The Associated Press, because the issue that you raised has actually been our concern for a long time," Soi said. The province imposed a temporary ban on sending workers abroad in November, Soi said. But advocates say the ban is unlikely to have any real impact, given that girls from the region are not migrating through legal pathways.
"It's not going to solve the problem, because the traffickers will just create new routes," said Sister Laurentina, a nun and counter-trafficking advocate in West Timor who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.
In 2009, a string of high-profile abuse cases led Indonesia to ban females from working in Malaysia, though the ban was later lifted after the two countries agreed on better protection. Still, grim accounts of abuse continue to emerge.
Adelina Sau, a 19-year-old Indonesian who had been working as a maid for a Malaysian family, died in February after a local lawmaker received a tip that she was being abused. Officials found bruises on her head and face and infected wounds on her hand and legs, police said. She was hospitalized, but died the next day. An autopsy found septicemia and cited possible abuse and neglect.
Adelina's family told the AP she was lured from the family's home in West Timor in 2014 by a recruiter promising work in Malaysia. The family never heard from Adelina again, and had no idea where she had been taken until they learned of her death.
Soi said the government is planning stricter requirements for those who want to work abroad, and will improve training centers for prospective migrant workers. The government also plans to expand efforts to educate village officials on how to spot illegal recruiters who may be hunting for girls in their communities. And Soi said he will travel to Malaysia in January to speak with officials there.
Malaysian police say they have increased their efforts to curb trafficking, but insist little can be done if Indonesian workers enter the country with falsified documents. Illegal recruiters in Indonesia often falsify the girls' ages on immigration documents so they meet Malaysia's minimum age of 21 to work as maids.
"Their passports are valid documents. It's issued by their government," said Maszely Minhad, who heads the national police anti-trafficking in persons and anti-smuggling of migrants unit. "It's very difficult for us to determine their age. Of course if it's very suspicious, the most we can do is reject and send them back. But when their papers are in order, what can we do?"
Maszely said Malaysian and Indonesian police are sharing intelligence to try to prevent traffickers from bringing migrant workers to Malaysia illegally.
Gelineau reported from Sydney. Associated Press writer Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.