Palm trees, bustling bars and golden sand – the holiday resort of Batam, where Premier League referees partied this week seems like an island
Palm trees, bustling bars and golden sand – the holiday resort of Batam, where Premier League referees partied this week seems like an island paradise.
But just a few streets away from the pristine beaches lies a seedy underbelly of prostitution and exploitation, which has made the island the child sex capital of Indonesia.
While there is no suggestion that any of the football referees are involved in any such activity, married football refs Martin Atkinson and Andre Marriner, both 48, lived it up on the island during a charity trip abroad, with pics showing their group cavorting with party girls, who work at a golf resort.
The refs were among the 390,000 British nationals who visit Indonesia every year and Batam island – just a 45 minute ferry ride from Singapore – is brimming with restaurants selling greasy fry-ups and cheap low-rise villas with pools shaded by palm trees.
But some holidaymakers don’t simply come here to top up their tan and down beers or, even, dance the night away.
More than 3,000 men a month travel to the party island to pay for sex.
There are believed to be 1,000 sex workers operating out of 300 brothels masquerading as karaoke bars and massage parlours, where services cost as little as a few pounds . Horrifyingly, some of the pimped-out girls are as young as four.
A visitor to Batam can “book” a girl from a karaoke or bar, or pick up a “freelance” girl from a disco or bar and typically pay around £25-£30 for her to spend the night with him at his hotel.
An hour in a massage parlour or hotel karaoke establishment costs around half that amount.
Pushy ‘mamis’ lying in wait
The centre of the tourist sex industry is the island’s commercial Nagoya Entertainment District (NED), where the group of six Premier League referees were pictured doing most of their partying.
Here, bars and clubs line the dingy strips and alleyways take westerners and Singaporean businessmen into shops offering massages where the “mami” lies in wait to take them to view the girls in a glass room out the back.
And they are ‘girls’ – make no mistake.
Dubbed ‘pleasure island’, the resort has become the Indonesian child sex work capital, with 7,500 underage prostitutes.
Interviews with sex workers offer a disturbing window into the child sex trade in Batam.
“Customers are looking for girls who are still kids,” says Lili, 25, who worked as a ‘mami. “They’re really popular, they get booked everyday, or even twice a day if they are really young and cute.”
“They say the 15-year-olds are still new. They’re innocent. You can do anything with them. They give special satisfaction.”
She was talking in a documentary, Inside the Child Sex Trade, made by SBS Australia, which also follows the story of Diana and Lina – both believed to be 14 years old .
They were trying to help their poor families on the Indonesian island of Madura by earning a living picking grass and tobacco but were tricked into prostitution instead.
They were told by a woman who arrived in their village one day that they could sell snacks for 500,000 rupiah – roughly £27 – a month, but then she sold them to an illegal brothel in Batam for $400 (around £313) each.
End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT) global network recently confirmed that the number of underage prostitution cases on the little holiday island “continues to grow”, with victims serving up to eight customers in a night.
Honey, one such sex worker, was just 17 when she first sold sex in the island’s busy major red light district. She said this was older than most of her contemporaries, who typically started selling themselves for sex at the age of 15.
“They all like young girls,” Honey told Channel News Asia. “Sometimes, they ask if I’m younger – if I can be younger.”
Victims as young as four
While Batam used to be famous for it’s casinos, experts say that gambling no longer brings as many tourists to the island as its unregulated sex industry.
The chief of Batam city police’s women and child protection unit told a local news agency that the youngest victim rescued by her team in 2017 was a four-year-old girl, who ended up trafficked and sexually exploited.
Young girls are very popular
Many of these have been forced or conned into sex work.
Sex worker Lina tells the documentary: “When we got to Java she said all sorts of stuff. We wouldn’t be selling snacks.
“We’d be selling our c***s. I wanted to go home. She brought all these men to rape four of us.”
They were both virgins prior to arriving in Batam, where they were forced to see up to five clients a day.
Of her first time, Lina recalled: “It hurt. I tried to get away from him. I fell off the bed, he pulled me back up. I hit him. I didn’t want to have sex.”
Diana started menstruating shortly after she arrived, but Lina still hadn’t started her period when she was put to work.
Eight months later, the girls still had not received a penny of their earnings.
They escaped the brothel after charity workers who teach sex workers how to practice safe sex flagged how young they were.
Because they were from a strict Muslim background, the girls feared being killed by their fathers for bringing shame onto their family so were reluctant to leave.
The charity got in touch with their families who sent their uncles to rescue them.
After an emotional escape, the girls were taken to a hospital where they tested positive for venereal diseases and they were then flown back to their families.
Sex workers desperate for money
Predictably, poverty is fuelling Batam’s burgeoning sex industry.
Of its one million residents, 300,000 are unemployed and girls often willingly head to the island on a promise of earning better money.
They may be holding down low-paying day jobs and looking for some extra cash to supplement their income or be divorced or unmarried mothers with a child to support.
As ECPAT wrote in a 2017 report: “They [prostitutes] were usually lured with empty promises of jobs as shopkeepers or restaurant waitresses with a salary of IDR 3,500,000 per month (£193), which is regional minimum wage.
“Since regional minimum wage in Batam is higher than that of in other areas in Indonesia, traffickers often use this to lure their potential victims.”
Website telling tourists ‘how to spot a prostitute’
While the majority of the 1.8 million people visiting Batam are businessmen from the neighbouring island of Singapore, the sex industry is fast becoming the biggest draw with holidaymakers from further afield.
Incredibly, some websites explain to men how to spot if a woman is a prostitute.
“A good rule of thumb is if you go into a bar and a girl asks you to buy her a ladies drink, or if you hear anything about paying a bar fine or exit fee then that is a business of prostitution,” the site explains, referring to NED [Nagoya] as a “Pay for Play” zone, “where you can have sex with girls working in massage parlours, karaokes or freelancers in bars and clubs.”
Corruption is rife
Sex work is illegal in Indonesia, a religious Muslim country, where there is no official age of consent but men can marry at 19 and women, 16.
So how is it then that the sex industry in Batam is so openly thriving?
The brothels are technically allowed to operate as business or entertainment outlets, but will be served a letter of notice should any “illegal activity” be detected by police. Any more than three letters and the outlet must be shut down.
However, these brothels simply reopen elsewhere under different monikers, with corruption and collusion with the police rife.
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“Close down one, three more will pop up,” Husaini Tarmizi of the Yayasan Mitra Kesehatan dan Kemanusiaan (YMKK) agency previously said.
“At first the police will conduct checks, but once they start taking money from the brothel every month, the checks stop.”
So while the corruption continues, the tourist sex industry continues to thrive and young girls continue to be exploited.