Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Hostages and Slaves

The Irrawaddy News
JULY, 2009 - VOLUME 17 NO.4

The underground world of human trafficking on the Malaysian-Thai border is one of corruption and broken dreams

ALOR SETAR, Malaysia — “Malaysian migration officers sold me to a human trafficking gang located near the Thai-Malaysian border,” said Lwin Ko, one of thousands of victims of human trafficking in Malaysia.

Like many other Burmese migrant workers and refugees in Malaysia, he was arrested for illegal entry into the country. After processing in an immigration detention center, he said, immigration officers transferred him directly to a gang of human traffickers, who treated him as a “hostage,” or slave, to be held for a lucrative ransom.

Migrant workers are apprehended and led to an open area by civilian security volunteers to have their documents inspected during an immigration raid in Kuala Lumpur in 2005. (Photo: AFP)

If no ransom was forthcoming after a few weeks, Lwin Ko would be passed on like many others to work as a crewman on a fishing boat or, for women, to work as household servants or as prostitutes in brothels.

When police arrested him, Lwin Ko, 17 years old at the time, was on his way to work in a Malaysian factory. “I did not have any money,” he said. “If I had about RM 100 [US $28], I could have paid the Malay police to release me.”

After serving six months in prison, he was transferred to a Malaysian immigration detention camp in Juru in Pulau Pinang Province, one of the most notorious detention centers in the country.

After one week, Malaysian immigration officers placed him in a truck with more than a dozen other Burmese migrants.

“We drove for three hours to the border town of Alor Setar,” Lwin Ko recalled. “The truck stopped at a roadside shop near a rubber plantation, where officers had a meeting with traffickers. Then we were moved to a traffickers’ truck where we were put with about 70 Burmese from the Juru detention camp.”

Lwin Ko received money from friends and paid RM 2,300 [$653] to return to his job in Kuala Lampur.

Recently, six victims of human trafficking in Malaysia told their stories to The Irrawaddy. Each told a similar tale, confirming that corrupt Malaysian immigration officers, organized trafficking gangs, and corrupt Thai officials, work in tandem to transfer hapless illegal migrants to human traffickers.

After leaving detention centers, luckless migrants eventually end up in buildings or homes along the Thai-Malaysia border owned by the gangs.

None knew the amount of money the traffickers paid the corrupt officers, but it’s estimated to be somewhere between RM 700 to 1,000 [$198- $286] for each person sold.

One of the victims, Win Tun, 26, who is from central Burma and who worked in Kuala Lumpur, said: “We were arrested by police and immigration officers, and they placed us in the hands of traffickers.”

The gangs told the trafficking victims they had to pay RM 1,900 to 2,300 [$539-$653] if they wanted to return to Kuala Lumpur or Burma. Most gang members, they said, were ethnic Mon from Burma. Gang leaders, however, were usually Thai or Malaysian, who appeared to be well connected to local Thai or Malaysian authorities. Some leaders were reportedly officers in either immigration or police services.

Sithu Aung, 30, who is from Rangoon and worked in Kuala Lumpur, recalled what happened when he arrived at the traffickers’ building.

“They let me call my friends in Kuala Lumpur to ask for money,” he said. “They asked me for RM 2,300 to take me from that border town back to Kuala Lumpur.”

Unlucky migrants who cannot afford to pay for their freedom are usually sold to owners of Thai fishing boats, where they work in slave-like conditions.

According to a Burmese man, a former member of a trafficking gang who is now in hiding in Kuala Lumpur, after Malaysian immigration officers sell victims to a trafficking gang, the gangs usually wait one or two weeks for money to arrive from a victim’s family or friends.

If no money comes by the third week, said the man, who goes by the name Wanna, the hostages are usually passed on to be sold into the fishing industry or into household service or prostitution.

“Taking an illegal migrant is like taking a hostage,” said Wanna. “If they have money, they cannot be freed until we are paid. If they don’t have money, they will be sold somewhere else.”

Traffickers have no fear of authorities, he said, because immigration officials see illegal migrants as “second-class humans.”

Latheeffa Koya, a well-known Malaysian human rights lawyer, said the human trafficking business along the border is nothing more than a form of slave trade in the contemporary world. The problem is transnational, she said, and to be remedied, all nations in the region must cooperate with each other.

“The reasons behind the problems are corrupt law enforcement and xenophobia,” she said. “The Malaysian people and the media have to know about this ugly issue.”

Why are Burmese the main victims in the slave trade on the Malaysian-Thai border?

Aegile Fernandez, the coordinator of Tenaganita, a Malaysian human rights group, explained: “Burmese are highly valuable goods [for traffickers] because as refugees they are not accepted by their own country.”

Some victims who are sold to traffickers had even registered with the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. But Malaysia has not signed the UN refugee convention, she said, so it goes unrecognized and is of no help.

“We are sad to see that Malaysia has high corruption,” Aegile Fernanadez said. “Officials are so greedy for money. They look at illegal migrants as a valuable resource.”

The situation facing Burmese migrants in Malaysia, who total an estimated 500,000 people, is quite different from migrants from other countries in the region who work in the country. Malaysian human rights groups say that if Malaysian authorities arrest undocumented migrants from Indonesia, the Philippines or Bangladesh, they are returned back to their country through government-to-government cooperation.

However, the Burmese military regime is unwilling to cooperate with any country which has detained illegal Burmese migrants. When faced with immigration problems, even legal migrant workers who are in Malaysia via agents cannot get routine help from the Burmese embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Sometimes Burmese embassies in Thailand and Malaysia even publish notices in Burmese that read: “Come in person, but don’t come with a problem.”

Of course, human traffickers operate on a two-way street, and also smuggle people out of Burma through Thailand and into Malaysia. All undocumented Burmese migrants interviewed by The Irrawaddy said that they paid up to 100,000 kyat [about US $100] to trafficking agents in Rangoon or Kawthoung, in southern Burma, to be smuggled into Malaysia.

Traffickers in Kawthoung transport migrants to the Thai town of Ranong by boat, where they then depart by bus or vehicle to cross the Malaysian border.

“I was put in a box that they placed in the baggage area of a bus,” said Myint Lwin, who recalled his journey into Malaysia.

Traffickers clearly have the help of local police and immigration officials, said one migrant.

“I saw people in uniform help traffickers in smuggling people from Thailand to Malaysia,” he said. “How else can we come to Malaysia through so many checkpoints?”

How to combat the human trafficking issue in Malaysia and all of Southeast Asia is a major issue for Malaysian authorities as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Human rights advocates and analysts say all Asean nations have a clear obligation under the new Asean charter.

Migrant issues in the region are recognized as an urgent problem that must be resolved, said Usana Berananda of the department of Asean Affairs in Thailand’s foreign ministry.

But recognizing a problem and taking concrete actions to solve it are not the same. Migrants and analysts are skeptical, pointing out that officials in many Asean countries still view migrants as an enemy, even though many significant industries and businesses in the region survive by employing a migrant workforce, often illegal.

“I do not see any good prospect for Burmese migrants and refugees unless governments in the region give up their bad policies on migrants,” Aegile Fernandez said. “We need the governments to take real action against corrupt immigration officers. However, it will be difficult because the immigration department is also the government itself.”

While activists and honest government officials struggle with the human trafficking problem in the region, average Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia simply hope they can avoid the corrupt officials and traffickers.

“I need to be aware of everything,” said Myint Lwin, who was sold to traffickers in late 2008. “Everything depends on karma. I am just praying to secure myself from arrest and human traffickers in the future.”

Stories such as Myint Lwin’s were outlined in a US State Department report this year, citing credible evidence of Malaysian immigration officials’ involvement in human trafficking. The report estimated that only 20 percent of the victims sold to traffickers by Malaysian officers are able to pay for their return. The unlucky people who cannot pay are passed on into a pitiless world of exploitation.

In June, the Malaysian government denied the US allegations in the report, issuing a statement calling the allegations “baseless.”

“The government has already initiated a few internal investigations, but [the accusations are] baseless,” said Malaysian Home Ministry Secretary Gen Mahmood Adam.

Such words ring hollow to the Burmese victims now toiling on Thai fishing boats or in houses of prostitution.

This story was written during a 2009 Southeast Asian Press Alliance Fellowship program.

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