FEMALE Indonesian migrant workers are being drawn to extremism while residing in Hong Kong, many through online communication with jihadi men, according to the findings of new research from a leading Jakarta-based think tank.
Released on Wednesday, the report from Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) entitled The Radicalisation of Indonesian Women Workers in Hong Kong argues that Indonesia’s government needs to work with labour recruiters and civil society organisations to prevent further radicalisation of female migrant workers, many of whom are culturally and socially isolated while overseas.
Only an estimated 50 domestic workers in Hong Kong have been drawn into extremist cells, out of a community of 153,000 Indonesians in the city.
Nevertheless, the report said these people may be capable of considerable damage as extremists given their international experience, multilingualism and greater access to financial capital than Indonesian extremists at home.
“Indonesian migrant women with their stable incomes, foreign language skills and international experience became sought-after partners of jihadi men,” it said.
“Some of these women were drawn in by jihadi boyfriends they met online,” argued IPAC analyst and one of the authors of the report, Nava Nuraniyah. “Some joined ISIS as a path to empowerment.”
Cultural and religious dislocation felt by Muslim Indonesians in Hong Kong, combined with poor treatment at the hands of employers, can provide impetus for the movement to extremism. The report highlights that many workers interviewed were forced “to pray in the bathroom and faced punishment if their employers found out.”
In a recent piece for the New York Times, Nava describes the humiliation felt by conservative Muslim women in having to prepare pork for their non-Muslim employers. “Could you imagine having to touch pork while wearing a niqab?” said one.
The report uses the case study of “Ayu” to illustrate how the difficulties of living as a migrant worker has pushed a small group of women to sympathise with extremist ideologies, including that which is propagated by the Islamic State.
Having lived in Hong Kong since 2004, Ayu struggled with being fired from several jobs and personal difficulties with her estranged Malaysian husband.
For a number of years her life was plagued by drug and alcohol abuse before undergoing a religious “enlightenment” in 2011 after gaining a new job, and turned to Facebook for guidance on Islam where she was drawn to jihadi pages about the war in Syria.
Ayu even met a new husband on Facebook – an Indonesian jihadi from Bekasi near Jakarta.
Social media and mobile messaging apps are thus reportedly vital to these tiny extremist cells. The Indonesian government recently signalled a crackdown on the messaging app Telegram over the fact that Islamic State operatives use it due to its sophisticated encryption and privacy settings.
In combatting further radicalisation of female migrant workers in Hong Kong, IPAC recommends that Indonesia must provide pre-departure training that entails “not only proper skill training but also sufficient information about their rights and risks of exploitation, including from online boyfriends and so-called ustadz who take advantage of migrants’ religious zeal and emotional needs.”
The report suggests Hong Kong and Indonesia as well as mainstream Muslim leaders must work to ensure extremist clerics who preach hatred are denied a platform.
Reporting mechanisms for those concerned about friends being drawn to extremism must be available at the Indonesian consulate and via Hong Kong authorities, said IPAC.
Moreover, rehabilitating extremists via one-on-one counselling rather than public humiliation is most likely to be effective.
According to Nava, ultimately “the best partner for the Indonesian and Hong Kong governments in preventing radicalisation of migrant workers is the broader Muslim community itself.”