By Beh Lih Yi
JAKARTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indonesian women are defying a government ban on traveling to the Middle East to work as maids, convinced there are better prospects in the Gulf than at home despite high-profile cases of abuse, a survey on Thursday showed.
Indonesia announced in May last year a permanent ban on sending women to the Middle East as domestic workers following reports of widespread abuse and the execution of two Indonesian maids in Saudi Arabia, which angered Jakarta.
However, a survey by advocacy group Migrant Care found that hundreds of Indonesian women are still leaving for jobs in the wealthier Middle East.
A total of 1,020 women interviewed between March 2015 and May 2016 at Jakarta's main airport said they were traveling abroad for the first time to seek jobs as maids.
About 90 percent of them were bound for Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, the poll showed. The rest were going to Malaysia, which is not affected by the ban.
"This is a very high number. The moratorium exists only on paper," said Migrant Care's executive director Anis Hidayah on the sidelines of a forum held to mark International Domestic Workers' Day.
"In Indonesia, we have limited job opportunities. Going abroad is one alternative, especially for women, because wages are so low here," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Indonesia's moratorium, which followed a temporary suspension, only affects new domestic helpers. Maids who are already in the Middle East were allowed to stay.
Andri Hadi, a senior official at the foreign ministry, said the authorities would act to stop women from flouting the ban.
"We are aware (of this) and we will take some strong policies to stop this practice," said Hadi, the ministry's director-general for consular and protocol affairs, which oversees the protection of migrant workers overseas.
"On the ground we have to strengthen the enforcement of our law, because this is illegal and against the law," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Indonesia is a major source of maids for many countries around the world, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Officials estimate there are some 2.3 million registered Indonesian domestic workers abroad, with the same number of undocumented workers.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)