Small number of Indonesian domestic workers radicalised while in Hong Kong, report warns
Study from Jakarta-based think tank says community must do more to support isolated individuals in the city
A security think tank has claimed that about 45 Indonesian domestic workers have been radicalised and linked with Islamic State while living in Hong Kong.
While leaders from the 153,000-strong Indonesian community in Hong Kong and local Muslim representatives said they had not seen cases of radicalisation in the city, they urged authorities to look at the root of the problem, which they believed could be related to isolation and exploitation that many domestic helpers experience in Hong Kong.
The study was published on Wednesday by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, which has produced several reports on conflicts in Southeast Asia, and concluded that a search for a sense of community in an unfamiliar environment, a rise in religious outreach, and personal troubles had spurred the helpers to support the extremist Islamic State.
The report stated that, given the size of the Indonesian community in the city, the number of domestic helpers who turned to extremism was “tiny”.
“Some of these women were drawn in by jihadi boyfriends they met online,” said Nava Nuraniyah, an analyst with the institute. “But some joined IS as a path to empowerment.”
The think tank said it identified at least 50 radical female workers in East Asia taking part in a variety of extremist discussion groups. It said the total number could be higher, but was likely fewer than 100. Of the women, 43 had worked or were now working in Hong Kong, three in Taiwan, and four in Singapore.
The report tells in detail the story of three women in Hong Kong who competed to get recognition from Islamic State figures in Indonesia and Syria, through providing funds and arranging emigration to Syria via Hong Kong for Indonesian jihadis. A handful of domestic helpers based in the city also went to Syria by themselves, the study showed.
Eni Lestari, chairperson of the International Migrants Alliance, said she had not witnessed radicalisation despite speculation it had been rampant in recent years.
“I know there has been a big Islamisation push ... We come from a very moderate Islam but some people are becoming stricter,” she said.
“Most Indonesian domestic helpers have a normal life in Hong Kong, not what it would be perceived as a devoted Muslim life,” Lestari observed.
Lestari, who is a domestic worker from Indonesia, said that in the past decade more people started practising Islam more strictly, partly fuelled by religious leaders at home. “These days there are many domestic workers wearing a veil if you go to Victoria Park on Sundays, and a few are fully covered,” she said. “But I never heard anyone spreading such ideas around.”
Lestari claimed women who became radicalised had most likely been victims.
“The working conditions of domestic helpers and the exploitation many endure in Hong Kong put them in a more vulnerable position,” she said.
“Many of those working here are exhausted ... their rights are not recognised, they are frustrated and under pressure.”
Lestari added that many Indonesians come to the city at a very young age, being forced to grow up far away from their families. “Due to economic reasons they have to stay here, and they deal with many issues, like isolation and discrimination.”
The report said that the abuses Indonesian domestic helpers faced in Hong Kong “do not appear to have played a direct role in the radicalisation ... but they did lead to the establishment by the maids themselves of an Islamic advocacy group.”
Luisa Tan Castro, member of the United Muslim Association of Hong Kong, said it was important to look at the root of the problem and “why people feel so disillusioned that they end up turning to extremism”.
Castro described the Muslim community in Hong Kong as largely peaceful and multicultural. “We work a lot on integration and we motivate our youth to get involved and contribute for Hong Kong society,” she said.
“A few years ago, I asked around about the radicalisation of Indonesians in Hong Kong. Some might have already some connections in Indonesia, maybe through their husbands or other people,” Castro said, claiming she had not witnessed any case.
Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country that has seen a growing religious conservatism.
In March 2015, two top Hong Kong officials warned of the threat posed by international terrorism as Muslim groups in the city expressed concern over leaflets bearing an image associated with the extremist Islamic State that circulated among Indonesian helpers.
There were also reports that month of a heavily pregnant Indonesian maid working locally who went missing after allegedly planning to go with her husband to Syria to join IS militants.
According to the new study, the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011 was the immediate trigger for the emergence of extremist cells in Hong Kong, although interest in extremist doctrine had been evident earlier.
The report called on the Indonesian government to work with overseas employment agencies and migrant rights groups to include training modules that alert Indonesian women to the risk of exploitation by extremist men.
It also called on the Hong Kong authorities to ensure that known extremist clerics were “not given visas to spread hatred in the migrant community”.
A Security Bureau spokesman told the Post that police had been “keeping a close watch” on international terrorist activities and that the city’s terrorist threat level remained “moderate”.