Fri, 28 Mar 2003

A defender of victimized workers

Multa Fidrus, The Jakarta Post, Tangerang, Banten

Adj. Comr. Sri Suari is known among her fellow police officers as a friendly but tough leader.

Her name comes first on the list of police officers manning the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport police station -- not because she is a woman officer but because she is the boss.

Being placed in charge of security at the international airport indicates the trust that the Jakarta Police Headquarters has in the 40-year-old officer.

Suari, who has been at the airport police station since 2000, has one very special focus in her job: providing maximum protection for Indonesian workers arriving from overseas.

Soekarno-Hatta's Terminal III is a notorious point of disembarkation for homecoming workers, who often are treated as milch cows. The corrupt and greedy individuals preying on the workers include government officials, police officers, bank employees, non-governmental organization activists, bogus journalists and the bus drivers that take the workers from the airport to their villages.

Since being assigned to the airport, Suari has uncovered 35 cases of extortion targeting overseas workers from the moment they left the aircraft to the minute they set foot in their home villages.

The crimes range from airport bus crews demanding "cigarette money" and businesspeople forcing workers to change their money, to strangers forcing them to buy electronic goods at inflated prices and outright robbery.

"About half of the cases went to court and the rest were settled amicably," she said. "Some cases are better settled out of court to avoid the complicated legal procedures and time- consuming processes."

Suari said the extortion of overseas workers had become a form of organized crime, involving officials and individuals with no legal authority.

Suari has written a guidebook that provides detailed information to returning migrant workers about how to avoid being victimized.

She wrote the book after much research on the different forms of extortion and difficulties faced by the workers.

She posed as a returning worker, wearing Muslim clothes like most of the workers. She spent several days and nights in Terminal III, where arriving workers have their documents processed.

"One day, a suspicious cleaning service worker chased me and kicked me because I always covered my face and turned my back when he asked me why I was still there," she said.

On another occasion, she posed as one of seven workers bound for their home villages in Cianjur and Sukabumi, West Java. She stayed at one of the workers' home.

"I wanted to learn what happened to workers during their trip from the airport to their village, and see the real condition of the workers' families.

"I got swollen feet from walking for hours from the nearest town to the workers' village. There was no transportation to the village," she said.

Suari successfully employed this disguise tactic last year when she bust a drug trafficking ring. She posed as a courier delivering a package to guests at a hotel on Jl. Rasuna Said in South Jakarta. She arrested a Malaysian and two Indonesians with 4.5 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine in their possession.

Although she is always focused on other crimes that occur in her jurisdiction, for Suari protecting overseas workers from extortion is a top priority.

"Arriving workers are easy extortion targets because they carry large sums of foreign currencies," she said.

One thing she has done to help workers is to assign women police officers to the airport to hand out police telephone numbers to the workers, so they can contact the police in case of emergency.

Last September, she required all returning workers to deposit their money at Bank BNI before leaving the airport, and withdrawing it from a branch office once they got home.

Workers who are unwilling to do this must sign a statement confirming that they understand the possible security risks.

She cannot say just how effective these measures have been, in large part because the police have only been able to catch the small fries, while the big fish behind the crimes remain untouched.

"These migrant workers have contributed trillions of rupiah to the state coffers. The tragedy is that the state fails to protect them.

"I am afraid that they will file a class action suit against the state someday, when they realize that their basic rights are not respected," she said.

Suari was born in 1963 and grew up in the small town of Bima on Sumbawa island in West Nusa Tenggara. She was raised by her mother Maria Sunarty after her father died when she was nine months old.

After graduating from high school in 1982, she joined the police force. In 1983 she was assigned as a shooting instructor, a position she held until being sent to the officer training course in 1992.

She was sent to the Police Academy in 1994, graduating in 1997 with honors. She continued her studies at the Police Science Institute, graduating in 1999 again with honors.

While serving as the airport police chief, Suari also pursued her master's degree in Police Sciences at the University of Indonesia, completing the degree in August 2002.

She married Sr. Comr. Sri Wahyudi in 1986 and the couple have a teenage daughter and a son. Her husband is posted at the National Narcotics Body.

Suari continues to hope that some day the decision makers in the central government will begin to pay attention to the plight of the migrant workers, and start providing them the legal protection they deserve.

"I sincerely hope that the decision makers will issue policies that allow the workers to obtain more humane treatment, so that they can enjoy the fruits of their toil," she said.