ALOR SETAR, Malaysia – He was just 17, a minor in most countries, when Malaysian police caught him on his way to work to a factory in Kuala Lumpur. But his age made no difference to them, and Lwin Ko, an illegal migrant, was thrown in jail where he would spend the next six months before being moved into one of Malaysia’s most notorious detention centres. Then after a week there, authorities were once again hustling him and more than a dozen other Burmese migrants onto a truck.
“We drove for three hours to the border town of Alor Setar,” recalls Lwin Ko, now 21. “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.”
From detainee, Lwin Ko had suddenly been transformed into a hostage. Had his friends not managed to come up with 2,300 ringgit ($653) as “ransom”, the then teenager would have ended up as an unpaid crewman on a fishing boat.
One Burmese who used to work for one of the trafficker-gangs says that the traffickers usually wait one or two weeks for money to arrive from a victim’s family or friends before he or she is allowed to return to Malaysia or Burma. The lowest going rate is 1,900 ringgit ($539) for each migrant. Sithu Aung, 30, says that as soon as he and other migrants were brought to the traffickers’ place, they were told to call up their friends to ask for money.
“They cannot be freed until we are paid,” says the ex-gang member who is now in hiding in Kuala Lumpur. “If they don’t have money, they will be sold somewhere else.”
He says that female migrants who have no “ransom” are usually sold off to become household help or sex workers.
A modern slave trade
Malaysian human-rights lawyer Latheefa Koya say the human trafficking ”business” along the Malaysian-Thai border is nothing less than a modern form of slave trade. The problem is transnational, she says, and to be remedied, all nations in the region must cooperate.
That’s a notion that is once more receiving attention with the creation of the new ASEAN charter and the association’s even newer human-rights body. Indeed, Usana Berananda, chief of the Thai foreign ministry’s ASEAN Department policy unit, says that migrant issues in the region are recognised as an urgent problem that must be resolved.
But the trade in people that has been taking place at the Malaysian-Thai border for years now is all the more scandalous because authorities from both Malaysia and Thailand are apparently involved. Says one Burmese migrant: “I saw people in uniform help traffickers in smuggling people from Thailand to Malaysia. How else can we come to Malaysia through so many checkpoints?”
Lwin Ko himself is adamant in saying that it was Malaysian immigration authorities who “sold” him and other Burmese migrants to traffickers at the border. Seconds Win Tun, 26: “We were arrested by police and immigration officers, and they placed us in the hands of traffickers.”
Other human-trafficking victims also say that Malaysian and Thai authorities are in collusion with organised trafficking gangs. Most gang members, they say, are ethnic Mon from Burma. Gang leaders, however, are usually either Thai or Malaysian and who appear to be well-connected to Thai or Malaysian authorities. Some gang chiefs were even reportedly officers in either the immigration or police services.
Although no one among the migrants interviewed by this writer had an idea how much the authorities could be getting for their involvement, some activists estimate the amount per official to be somewhere between 700 ringgit to 1,000 ringgit ($198 to $286) for each person sold.
According to the Burmese ex-gang member, traffickers have no fear of authorities because immigration officials see illegal migrants as “second-class humans”. There have been reports as well that young female migrants in particular were often sexually abused by the gang members.
Just this April, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations received a report by U.S. Senator Richard Lugar on the supposed involvement of Malaysian officials in the trafficking of migrants at the Malaysian-Thai border, among other things. The report also estimated that only 20 percent of the migrants who are sold to traffickers by Malaysian officers are able to pay ransom.
But Malaysian officials have repeatedly denied such allegations. Last year, when a local TV station aired a documentary that tackled the trafficking of migrants and implied the involvement of Malaysian officials, then Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar declared, “I take offence with the allegation because neither the Malaysian Government nor its officials make money by selling people.”
This time around, Home Ministry Secretary General Mahmood Adam said two months after the release of the U.S. Senate report, “The government has already initiated a few internal investigations, but (the accusations are) baseless.”
Migrants as commidities
In 2008, Malaysian human-rights activist Irene Fernandez wrote a book called The Revolving Door that documented the trafficking of Burmese migrants along the border. Aegile Fernandez, her sister and colleague at Tenaganita, a migrants and women’s rights group in Malaysia, comments, “We are sad to see that Malaysia has high corruption. Officials are so greedy for money. They look at illegal migrants as a valuable resource.”
She also says, “Burmese are highly valuable ‘goods’ because as refugees they are not accepted by their own country.”
Some victims who are sold to traffickers had even registered as refugees with the UN refugee agency. But, says Aegile Fernandez, Malaysia has not signed the UN refugee convention so the migrants’ refugee registration goes unrecognised and is of no help. As of last March, the United Nations had registered 42,300 Burmese migrants in Malaysia as refugees.
By most accounts, Burmese migrants in Malaysia have a “unique” experience among foreigners working here. Local rights groups say, for instance, that if Malaysian authorities arrest undocumented migrants from Indonesia, the Philippines, or Bangladesh, they are returned to their home countries through government-to-government cooperation.
But Burma’s military rulers refuse to cooperate with any country that has detained illegal Burmese migrants. Then again, even Burmese who are here legally have found out that they cannot get routine help from the Burmese embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Sometimes, the Burmese embassies in Thailand and Malaysia even post notices in Burmese that read: “Come in person, but don’t come with a problem.”
Migrants and analysts alike, however, also point out that officials in many ASEAN countries still view migrants as “enemies” even though many significant industries and businesses in the region survive largely because of their employment of illegal migrant workers.
Still, there are indications that the publicity the issue has been getting of late has at least prompted a few Malaysian legislators to twitch somewhat in their seats. In fact, Klang MP Charles Santiago, in reaction to the U.S. Senate report, declared in a Parliament speech last April: “I call upon the newly minted Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Tun Hussein to open a new investigation on the matter and consider the 10 proposals of the Lugar report including the implementation of the country’s Anti-Trafficking Law, ASEAN’s Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers, and the immediate ratification of the UN 1967 Refugee Convention – with a view to protect and promote the rights of migrants and refugees in the country and region.”
Yet he had also observed earlier in the same speech: “ASEAN (members)… pretend they are limousine liberals while in reality, turn a blind eye to the gross violations of human rights by the (Burmese) military.”
“The 10-member bloc’s non-interference policy,” he had added, “further cushions the Burmese military from the need to be accountable to the killings and disappearances of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas, Karens, Chins, and other minority clans.”
Tenaganita’s Aegile Fernandez, for her part, says, “I do not see any good prospect for Burmese migrants and refugees unless governments in the region give up their bad policies on migrants. 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.”
In the meantime, Burmese migrants in Malaysia simply try to keep avoiding getting into the hands of corrupt local officials and traffickers.
“I need to be aware of everything,” says Myint Lwin, who has already experienced being 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.”