THE ISAFIS GAZETTE #2: Complex but Overlooked: Human Trafficking Phenomenon in East Nusa Tenggara as a Transnational Crime

Published by Research and Development on

Written by: Christofer Wahyu Lorenzo Kadju

Human trafficking as a Criminological Phenomenon

Human trafficking is a serious issue on an international level because it involves a large network of human trafficking syndicates across nations and regions (Wulandari & Wicaksono in Syamsuddin, 2020, 17). The definitions of human trafficking and people smuggling are similar and are often categorized as the same thing. However, from a criminological perspective, people smuggling is defined as an act in which a person or group of persons assists a consenting person to cross a national border illegally (Burke, 2022, 15). The contact between the two parties only lasts during the transfer process so it is only done for a short period. On the other hand, human trafficking is an act in which a person is deceived, manipulated, or coerced into engaging in recruitment and being moved from one place to another by traffickers (Sulaksono, 2018, 170).

The main difference between human trafficking and human smuggling lies in the elements of exploitation and coercion. The coercive element of exploitation characterizes human trafficking, while human smuggling emphasizes the facilitation of illegal crossings. In addition, the operational reach of human trafficking crimes does not have to cross national borders and can occur within a country, while human smuggling always occurs in the context of crossing between countries (Sulaksono, 2018, 171; Burke, 2022, 14). However, there is a possibility that the two can sometimes overlap one another. In other words, there is a possibility that human smuggling will turn into human trafficking (Aronowitz in Witzer, 2015, 225). 

Despite the differences in definitions, O’Connell (2015) emphasizes that both acts are forms of crime. Human trafficking is a form of crime because there are elements of coercion, manipulation, and deception to attract victims for profit by exploitation. On the other hand, people smuggling is also a crime because victims are moved illegally and placed in a vulnerable position, without certainty and parties who can guarantee their security and safety (O’Connel in Witzer, ibid.,).

Characteristics, Elements, and Forms of Human Trafficking

According to the UN Palermo Protocol (2000), The main characteristic of human trafficking is coercion. Coercion is the main element used by human traffickers to exploit and limit the freedom of victims (Burke, 2022, 5). Human trafficking has three main elements: actions, means, and purpose. The action element refers to the act of recruitment, concealment, transfer, and acceptance of the victim into the crime. The means element refers to the means used to coerce the victim, such as threats, violence, coercion, abduction, fraud, abuse of power, exploitation of the victim’s weaknesses, or debt bondage to gain control over the victim. Finally, the purpose element refers to the purpose of the act of human trafficking, which is often related to economic gains, such as sexual exploitation, prostitution, forced labor, forced service, slavery, and removal of human organs (Daniel, Mulyana, & Wibhawa, 2017, 23; Syamsudin, 2020, 20; Jebadu, 2020, 171).

Human trafficking takes many forms and can be classified into several categories. Based on the form of exploitation, human trafficking can be classified into two forms: (1) sexual exploitation, including; forced prostitution, forced marriages, mail-border brokered marriages, or mail-order brides; and (2) non-sexual exploitation, including forced labor and trafficking in human organs (Syamsuddin, 2020, 23). 

Based on the category of victims, there are three main categories of human trafficking: male, female, and children. In this case, women and children are vulnerable to human trafficking. It is known that most of the identified victims of human trafficking are women and children. This is confirmed by UN records which show that every year, 700 thousand to 4 million women and children become victims of human trafficking (Susanti et al., 2020, 183). The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report also revealed that 51% of human trafficking victims in East Asia are women, and almost a third are children (Hidayatullah & Melisa, 2022, 392). In addition, in 2016, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that 100,000 women and children are trafficked each year for sexual exploitation, domestic work, forced marriage, and child labor (Susanti et al., 2020, 183). Women are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking, especially for sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, and forced marriage (Kathryn in Syamsuddin, 2020, 21).

Human Trafficking as a Form of Transnational Organized Crime

Human trafficking is classified as a form of transnational crime because it is committed across national borders and involves a number of criminal organizations, known as syndicates (Burke, 2022, 127). With the development of technology, international criminal organizations have become more sophisticated in committing crimes. Whether it is in the recruitment of victims, the transfer of victims, or the exploitation of victims. It is known that the phenomenon of human trafficking occurs at an alarming rate in East Asia and the Pacific. According to the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, in 2016 more than 85 percent of victims were trafficked from within the region (Hidayatullah & Melisa, 2022, 392).

The difficulty in eradicating human trafficking can be seen from the high number of cases each year. According to data from The Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative (CDC), in 2020, human trafficking cases reached 108,613 cases in a total of 164 countries worldwide. This figure is much higher than the International Labour Organization (ILO) record in 2017 which estimated that 24.9 million victims were trapped in modern slavery in the form of human trafficking where 64% were exploited as forced labor, 19 percent were sexually exploited, and 17 percent were exploited in forced labor by the state (Syamsuddin, 2020,18).

The UNODC highlights that existing statistics on human trafficking do not accurately represent the true extent of the crime, as they only account for victims who have been identified and assisted by the UNODC and other NGOs. Due to the difficult nature of human trafficking networks, many cases remain undetected, resulting in “dark numbers” that are not captured in official data. Consequently, the reported figures significantly underestimate the actual prevalence of human trafficking (Jebadu, 2020, 173).

Human Trafficking Phenomenon in East Nusa Tenggara

According to UNHCR, Indonesia is not only a destination country for human trafficking from various countries, but also a country of origin for trafficking abroad with destinations in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, and the Middle East (Susanti et al., 2020, 182). Some of the provinces with the highest human trafficking rates in Indonesia include West Kalimantan, West Java, and East Nusa Tenggara (Kosandi et al., 2017, 241). 

In this article, specifically, the author will discuss human trafficking in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) because the threat of human trafficking is becoming an actual issue in NTT. However, human trafficking has not received much attention from the public. One of the reasons for this is also related to the secretive nature of organized crime syndicates. However, there has also been a lot of data revealed through reports and investigations by the police and other international organizations (Jebadu, 2020, 171).
According to data from the National Police Criminal Investigation Unit (BARESKRIM POLRI), the number of human trafficking cases occurring in NTT is the highest in Indonesia. In addition, according to data from the Institute of Resource Governance and Social Change (IRGSC), it is known that from January to December 2015, 941 people became victims, of which there were 1,667 TKW from NTT who were victims of human trafficking in 2015 (Daniel, Mulyana, & Wibhawa, 2017, 24).

NTT is one of the provinces in Indonesia with the highest rate of human trafficking due to the fact that the province contributes the most to Indonesian Migrant Workers (TKI) who leave abroad. Most of the migrant workers who go abroad leave without official documents. In other words, they become non-procedural migrant workers, which leads them to the complex network of human trafficking (Suwarno, et al., 2018, 109; Susanti, et al., 2020, 185). The victim registers as an Indonesian migrant worker to work abroad and then becomes a victim of exploitation in the country of work. Therefore, the phenomenon of human trafficking in NTT can be said to be a case of human trafficking under the guise of sending migrant workers abroad

Based on a report from the Indonesian National Police in 2016, it was recorded that in 2012-2016 there were 643 cases of human trafficking in NTT with details of 310 cases of sexual exploitation, 263 cases of labor exploitation, 65 cases of working not according to agreement, and 5 cases of baby selling. In addition, it was recorded that the victims totaled 754 people, with details of 418 adult women, 218 girls, 115 adult men, and 3 boys (Susanti, et al., 2020, 185). Based on this data, it is known that most victims of human trafficking are female migrant workers, with the most common form of human trafficking being sexual exploitation.

What Factors Contribute to The High Incidence of Human Trafficking in East Nusa Tenggara?

From a Criminological perspective, to understand the context of human smuggling and human trafficking, one must first understand the underlying motives of the victim to engage in such operations consciously. There are several reasons why victims are willing to voluntarily engage in such operations. 

Globalization and Economic Motives

The practice of human trafficking is inseparable from globalization. Globalization, and of course the emergence of the internet,  has blurred national boundaries and created the perception of a borderless world through cross-cultural social integration. The development of this “borderless world” can present various transnational crime issues.

Economic factors and globalization make the victims, who in this case are Indonesian migrant workers from NTT, willing to go through an arduous process in order to go abroad. In simple terms, the factors that lead to human trafficking are the search for better life prospects and globalization enabled human trafficking syndicates to snare these victims into a complex network of human trafficking (Triandafyllidou, 2018, 213).


Poverty is also a cause of human trafficking in NTT. Poverty is a major social problem in NTT. Human trafficking cases in NTT arise as a consequence of poverty and lack of access to welfare. The inequality and symptoms of poverty that occur in NTT cause problems for women in NTT, as they are required to improve their economic conditions and support the lives of their families (Susanti et al., 2020, 244). Under these conditions, they are increasingly pressured and easily influenced by offers to become illegal/non-procedural migrant workers, which makes it easier for them to get entangled in human trafficking networks.

Low Level of Education

The lack of education is also one of the leading drivers of human trafficking. Most victims of human trafficking from NTT are recruited illegally as migrant workers because they have no understanding of the dangers and risks, nor the required official procedure. Their lack of knowledge makes them easy to deceive and trick, making them easy victims of human trafficking. In this context, it can be said that the underdeveloped economic conditions and lack of human resources have made NTT a “Human Emergency” province, where people are easily tricked into good jobs and lured with high salaries (Daniel et al., 2017, 26). 

Structural Unemployment

Furthermore, unemployment also plays a role in causing a person to be trapped in human trafficking. Unemployment is one of the causes of the prevalence of human trafficking victims in NTT. According to a report by the Indonesian Women’s Union (Seruni), 44 victims died from NTT due to human trafficking. Young women from NTT are easily recruited by labor service companies to become migrant workers. Moreover, it is known that poverty encourages some parents in NTT to allow their children to be recruited to work abroad (Ibid., 27).


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