Monday, April 27, 2009

Burmese Migrants Handed Over to Human Traffickers

The Irrawaddy News

Unable to support his family in Rangoon, 27-year-old Wunna had migrated to northern Malaysia one year earlier to work illegally on a construction site. Then, on November 15, he was arrested by two policemen and taken to Bandar Badar police station.

Wunna was charged with entering the country illegally and was caned under a draconian Malaysian law. He was held in detention for one month and 17 days before the guards led him out of his cell and bundled him into a truck with 60 other Burmese migrants. He was then driven to the town of Changlun near the Thai-Malaysian border.

Wunna was handed over to human traffickers who told him he would be forced to work on an Indonesian fishing boat for five years if he could not pay Malaysian Ringgit 2,300 (US $640).

“While they waited for the RM 2,300, we were beaten all the time,” Wunna said, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Monday. “And we were continually told we would be taken to a Thai port and sold to Indonesian fishing boats.”

Wunna claimed that hundreds of Burmese migrants are handed over by Malaysian immigration officials to unscrupulous human traffickers at the Thai-Malaysian border.

“At one point we escaped from the traffickers’ house,” he said. “We came across a Malaysian policeman and begged him to help us. But, he turned out to be on the traffickers’ pay roll and he turned us over to the traffickers. We practically lost all hope.

“The traffickers handed us phones and told us to call our families in Burma or contacts in Malaysia to get money to buy our release,” Wunna added. “We were told that if they didn’t send bank transfers, we would pay with our lives.”

Although Wunna was unable to secure a bank transfer from his family in Rangoon, he said the traffickers kept him in the house and forced him to do domestic work, such as cleaning and cooking.

After two or three months, Wunna finally escaped and contacted a Burmese labor rights group in Kuala Lumpur.

Wunna is still in Malaysia, but remains in hiding as it is known that the gang of human traffickers is looking for him.

On Monday, the Malaysian daily New Straits Times reported that a Malaysian parliamentarian, backed by Malaysian human rights group Tenaganita, had called on the Malaysian government to launch an independent inquiry into the trafficking of illegal migrant workers, most of whom are Burmese.

“This is organized crime and we need an independent commission to investigate, not have co-workers investigate each other,” said Aegile Fernandez, Tenaganita’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons Coordinator, according to The New Straits Times’ Web site on Monday.

She was quoted as saying that the authorities must address the issue quickly.

According to The New Straits Times, Fernandez, who alleged that Malaysian Immigration authorities are behind the whole operation, added: “Who else has access to the detainees at the detention camps and is directly involved in sending them back?”

The allegations coincided with a US Senate report released on Thursday claiming that illegal Burmese migrants deported from Malaysia were often turned over to human traffickers and forced to work on fishing boats, in restaurants or as prostitutes in Thailand if they could not raise the money to purchase their freedom.

According to the Senate Committee report, migrants from Burma had regularly become victims of extortion and trafficking once they were deported to Malaysia's northern border with Thailand.

“Migrants state that those unable to pay [the traffickers] are turned over to human peddlers in Thailand, representing a variety of business interests ranging from fishing boats to brothels,” the report said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on Friday that his government hopes to get more information on the report from US authorities, according to the Associated Press (AP) news agency.

“We will take appropriate action," Najib told reporters. "We do not want Malaysia to be used as a point for human trafficking ... but we need to know more facts." (JEG's: it has been a human trafficking port for decades...:( )

According to the AP report, Malaysian opposition politician Lim Kit Siang also urged the government to "respond with instant action" to the US Senate report, saying it is "not only most damaging to Malaysia's international image, but raises grave questions about Malaysia's human rights commitment."

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