'Don’t have younger?’ Battling Batam’s festering issue of youth and child sexual exploitation
Singaporeans contribute to the “high demand” for prostitution and sexual exploitation of teens on the Indonesian island, say local agencies.
BATAM, Indonesia: The sex worker's iPhone wallpaper is a wefie with her mother, both clad in hijabs and grinning from ear to ear. “I do feel sinful," says the 19-year-old who calls herself Honey.
Her otherwise nonchalant, world-weary bearing softens for a moment. "But I’ve already gone through with it. What can I do?” she whispers.
Honey was 17 when she first prostituted herself - older than most of her contemporaries, who were starting out at what she said was typically the age of 15. Their instructions were to add five to six years to this number when asked by customers, but even with the truth accidentally revealed, none batted an eyelid at the prospect of having sex with a teenager.
“They all like young girls,” said Honey. “Sometimes, they ask if I’m younger - if I can be younger.”
Her tale is emblematic of an island-wide issue on Indonesia’s Batam, according to authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who spoke to Channel NewsAsia.
In 2017, Yayasan Embun Pelangi (YEP), a humanitarian agency assisting underage victims of sexual exploitation, handled 28 such instances, of which 14 involved prostitution. Separately, the Rumah Faye agency, which aims to tackle underage sexual abuse, received 21 children last year, of which five were forced into prostitution and the rest sexually exploited.
These reported cases aside, there is no recent, reliable measure of the total number of underage individuals being sexually exploited, though in 2016 the Commission for the Protection of Indonesian Children said there were 1,000 child sex workers in Batam.
A year later, the End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT) global network commented that the number of underage prostitution cases on the little holiday island “continues to grow”, with victims serving up to eight customers in a night.
Drefani, the chief of Batam city police’s women and child protection unit, still recalls the youngest victim rescued by her team last year: A four-year-old girl trafficked and sexually exploited.
Was she prostituted, too? The question was asked with some hesitance, but Drefani’s response instantaneous. “Just not yet,” she said with a straight face.
“CLOSE ONE, THREE POP UP”
Sex work, in general, remains illegal in Indonesia, where there is no official age of consent but men can marry at 19 and women, 16.
Rumah Faye estimates there are some 300 brothels littered throughout Batam, with most masquerading as karaokes or massage parlours. These are technically allowed to operate as business or entertainment outlets, but will be served a letter of notice should any “illegal activity” be detected by police. Any more than three letters and the outlet must shut down, Drefani explained.
YEP’s Irwan Setiawan, however, said these brothels simply reopen elsewhere under different monikers.
“Close down one, three more will pop up,” added Husaini Tarmizi of the Yayasan Mitra Kesehatan dan Kemanusiaan (YMKK) agency. “At first the police will conduct checks, but once they start taking money from the brothel every month, the checks stop.”
Youngsters rescued from these brothels are typically rehabilitated at a shelter first - for no more than two weeks, as mandated by the Indonesian government - before being sent home. For at least six months after, organisations like Rumah Faye will attempt to keep monitoring their progress via phone calls.
“Their situation makes them not trust other people, so it takes a while,” said Rumah Faye’s Dewi Astuti, recalling how her toughest nut to crack was a 13-year-old girl, whose pimp had also made her addicted to drugs to tighten his grip on her.
The government-funded YEP has also attempted to reach out and educate rural communities where most of these children are trafficked from.
But all the NGOs acknowledged their work has already been largely undermined by the current trend of online prostitution.
“You won’t find child sex workers at brothels anymore. They’re sent straight to hotels, and it’s harder to track down,” said Dewi.
Acknowledging that YEP has yet to help any victims of the online trade, Irwan observed: “Hotels in Batam generally close an eye to odd sightings like a grown-up customer bringing a child up to the room, or a lone child being sent to the hotel by pimps. You can do all that and the reception won’t say anything.”
“So now, we’re trying to work with hotels, to get them to tell their staff what to do.”
Drefani said her team of nine were also working with colleagues in the cyber department, while attempting some policing of their own on popular social media channels like Facebook and WeChat.
“There’s a limit to what we can do, beyond prevention and helping victims,” said Irwan. “It’s the demand side that needs to be worked on.”
SINGAPOREANS "GETTING AWAY WITH IT"
Huddled in the Nagoya city centre’s morass of dingy strips and alleyways, a crassly multi-fluorescent shopfront stands open for business deep into the night.
It is tagged as a massage destination on Google Maps, but lying in wait inside is a pushy mamasan - called a “mami” in Batam - with her offering of sex workers seated behind a glass panel.
Seconds after the mami brags about having “many, many” Singaporean customers, a pair of them, looking to be in their twenties, breeze through the door with a local driver in tow. They high-five the middle-aged mami like regulars, and survey their prospects for the night’s entertainment - but not before making sure to ask for the youngest available girl.
“This one,” the mami gestures to an impossibly petite, elfin specimen. “We usually say she’s 18 years old. One point five (million rupiah) for all night.”
“Don’t have younger?” one of the Singaporeans asks, as he sizes her up intently.
Scenarios like these are the reason why YEP and Rumah Faye have been calling for Singaporean NGOs and even Government bodies to work together on stemming the flow of sex tourists carried to Batam by the short, 40-minute ferry ride.
There are also no recent, detailed figures for Singaporeans or tourists seeking underage sex in Batam. Last year, ECPAT reported anecdotally that consumers of trafficked children were locals from Batam as well as foreigners from Malaysia and Singapore.
“Many middle-aged Singaporean men, above 40 years old, who are called ‘apek-apek’, visited Batam for sex with children between the ages of 13 and 17 years. They were usually facilitated by brokers who were taxi drivers to access these child prostitutes,” the global organisation stated. “It is hard to eliminate child prostitution in the island due to high demand.”
All the NGOs interviewed said most of the child victims they helped in the last few years had named their exploiters or customers as mainly hailing from Singapore, and Honey claimed she had entertained more Singaporean customers compared to any other nationalities.
Channel NewsAsia also obtained police and NGO reports of Singaporeans who had recently engaged in various forms of underage sexual exploitation.
Mohammad Asri Sapuan was one such case. According to court documents, the 46-year-old sodomised and forced a 12-year-old boy, referred to as 078, to perform oral sex on him several times. Asri also sent the Batam native to the hotel rooms of visiting Singaporean friends, for IDR 300,000 (S$28) each time.
He was eventually arrested in late 2017 and in March sentenced to 13 years’ jail and an IDR 100 million (over S$9,000) fine for sexual assault. His victims - 078 and two others - were counselled, sheltered and nursed back to health by YEP.
In late 2016, the agency also tended to the alleged victims of another Singaporean man. The 56-year-old ran a centre - now shuttered - which purported to send domestic workers to Singapore, but really served as a front for him to sexually exploit girls in their pre-teens.
“If they did something wrong, they would be asked to circle him and show their genitals while dancing,” said Irwan. “Some of them were also told they would be sent to Singapore faster if they let him have sex with them.”
The man was arrested but escaped due to what Irwan described as a loophole which sets perpetrators free during a particular stage in the police’s investigative process. He could even have cleared immigration to Singapore if he wanted to, and today his whereabouts remain unknown - though provincial police have since closed the case and sent the victims home.
“Actually a lot of Singaporean men do such activities, but they get away with it - because it’s Batam,” claimed Husaini from YMKK.
“LURED BY EMPTY PROMISES”
Underpinning the demand and supply factors behind underage sex in Batam are the economic reasons for individuals to be trafficked or even willingly head to the island, said the NGOs.
As ECPAT wrote in its 2017 report: “Most of the child victims were from outside Batam. They were usually lured with empty promises of jobs as shopkeepers or restaurant waitresses with a salary of IDR 3,500,000 per month, which is regional minimum wage.
“Since regional minimum wage in Batam is higher than that of in other areas in Indonesia, traffickers often use this to lure their potential victims.”
Dewi also recounted how Rumah Faye’s last batch of pre-teen victims had been encouraged to come to Batam by a 17-year-old former victim herself. The latter, in turn, had been browbeaten by a pimp who threatened to withhold her pay if she did not do as told.
“It’s really hard for them to get away,” said Dewi. “They come here by plane ticket, which the pimp pays for. Then they also must pay to stay at the brothel. The pimp will always say they owe him money, and he will charge everything at twice the normal price - while taking a cut of their pay.
“If they do something ‘wrong’ like argue with the pimp, their pay will be cut too. End of the day, it’s as good as not getting any money.”
In YEP’s most recent case, a 13-year-old sex worker who charged each of her customers IDR 300,000 rupiah had to give 200,000 to her mami each time. Part of the remaining IDR 100,000 was used to pay off a “room fee”, which resulted in the girl taking home less than IDR 50,000 (less than S$5) each time.
In Honey's case, she works every night of the week on a three-month contract, and is largely dependent on tips to pay off an IDR 1.5 million (S$142) debt - part of which was slapped on her just for arriving late for her flight to Batam out of Bogor city, where she previously worked.
If she cannot settle the debt before her contract runs out, she will not be allowed to go home to Jakarta and her mother and five brothers, who till this day believe she works in a cafe in Batam.
“I’m just going through with it to earn money, so I can send it back to my family and support them,” said Honey, who never finished primary school. “If possible, I don’t want to carry on as a sex worker, but since I don’t have the qualifications, this is the best I can do now.
“Even if I can get out from this life, and do something else, if that doesn’t work out, will I have to return to sex work? I’m not sure … I just hope I can meet a guy who likes me and takes me away.”