Baling, MALAYSIA—Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia live at the mercy of international human-trafficking gangs who sell them back and forth as slave labor with the full knowledge of Malaysian and Thai immigration officials, RFA's Burmese service reports.
Thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Burmese find themselves stuck in a human rights no-man’s-land after losing their legal status, often because employers withhold passports or refuse to pay their return airfares.
“To tell the truth, we Burmese aren’t even as valuable as dogs in this country,” Burmese laborer Ko Chit Aye said. “Most of the time, Burmese people work in construction and on farms, but most employers cheat them. Most of them ask people to work without paying them money. Many of them don’t pay.”
To tell the truth, we Burmese aren’t even as valuable as dogs in this country.
In the murky world inhabited by thousands of Burmese in relatively prosperous Malaysia, there is scant protection for human rights as Malaysia doesn’t recognize key international agreements on the protection of refugees and foreign nationals. Nor does it apply to foreign migrants the same rights protections offered to Malaysian citizens.
Several secret jails or deportation camps exist around the country to hold foreign nationals found without papers. From there, officials take them to the Thai border, where trafficking gangs have close ties to Malaysian officials and have been tipped off to their arrival.
“Almost all agents, one way or the other, are politically connected,” said Malaysian legislator Kula Segaram, who is campaigning to boost legal protection of foreign migrant workers’ rights.
“They are all in the human-trafficking business. It’s big business. Big money,” said Segaram, who confirmed reports throughout Malaysia from stranded and trafficked Burmese migrants who say they are hounded either by immigration militia or by human-trafficking gangs with connections at every level of Malaysian society.
“It’s because these agents and brokers are connected to the authorities in one way or another. They are all involved in the human-trafficking business. This is a very big business that is bringing in a lot of money. I’m talking about U.S. $500 per person. In Malaysia, there are 2 million illegal foreign workers. You can just calculate the income,” Segaram said.
Typically, a Burmese worker is recruited by agents at home with promises of a lucrative job and matched with an employer, who then withholds his or her passport.
Often, when their contract ends, the employer refuses to pay the worker’s return airfare, as employers are legally obliged to do. Instead, the Burmese worker is turned loose without documentation to live on the run, or is taken to a detention center to await deportation.
A spokeswoman for the Malaysian human rights group Suaram said the government was making its own problems.
“The refugee problems in Malaysia are caused by Malaysian immigration. They are the main people who create these problems, and they don’t solve them,” the spokeswoman told reporter Kyaw Min Htun. “It’s because they’ve given the RELA militia group, which doesn’t deserve that much power, a lot of power and the right to raid homes and arrest people. That’s why the refugees are victimized,” she said.
RELA denotes the Ikatan Relawan Rakyat Malaysia, or Volunteers of the Malaysian People, a civil corps formed by the government whose primary responsibility is verifying travel documents and immigration permits held by foreigners.
RELA has authority to raid suspect premises and interrogate or detain people found without the proper documents. The U.S. State Department has described RELA as a corps of 440,000 citizens under the Home Affairs Ministry that accompanies police and immigration officials on raids.
“Following repeated media reports of alleged abusive behavior and inappropriate language by RELA members during raids, in February  the Home Affairs Ministry stated that only a small minority of RELA members would be allowed to participate in operations against illegal migrants and that RELA officers remained prohibited from body searching a suspect,” it said.
While Malaysian immigration law provides for six months in prison and up to six strokes of the cane for immigration violations, “delays in processing travel documents led to the detention of many illegal immigrants in camps for more than a year,” the State Department said in its most recent report on human rights around the world.
International rights groups say the Malaysian government has done little to prevent the trade in human beings.
Calls to the Malaysian immigration department in Kuala Lumpur met with constant deferral of requests for interviews with officials in charge of illegal immigration.
Ko Kyaw Gi, a Burmese migrant worker who has spent time in an immigration prison, said detainees were given old rice and fish marinated in salt to eat. He said that if anyone spilled any rice, the guards would beat and kick them. Injuries among the detainees went largely untreated.
As well as Baling and Alor Star in Kedah state, detention camps exist at Linkay Smone Nyin near Kuala Lumpur and Jodhu prison in Penang.
Ko Aung Kyaw Set, a Burmese national in Malaysia, said the process by which illegal immigrants were handed over to human traffickers was known as “bwan,” or to be “thrown away.”
“They are sent to the border. There are those who get back. Some of them are sold to the [fishing] boats. I can tell you for sure that we’ve been in touch with many of those people. They told us that they didn’t have any money for their passage to Burma. They don’t have any money to return to Malaysia. While they are caught in between, human-trafficking agents who have bought them sell them to the boats so that they can get back their money.”
One Burmese youth in Malaysia said he was dropped with around 150 others at the Thai-Malay border, in the town of Malay Galok in no-man’s-land.
“There was a small island. There was a river. We were put on a big boat, 150 of us. We were neither on the Thai side nor the Malay side. The island was in the middle. All 150 of us were sent there. The immigration [people] sold us to [the traffickers] for Malay 900 [ringgit] per person. We knew this because they told us, ‘We bought you guys.’”
Many Burmese fear trouble from the junta in their own country, and yet even those with United Nations refugee status have been found languishing in Malaysia’s immigration cells.
“If I were to go back, I think they would still arrest me, so I don’t dare go back,” a second Burmese youth said. “I have to be on the run. I have no documents. So I still have to be on the run.”
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cites the presence of more than 30,000 Burmese refugees in Malaysia. In 2006, it said 9,186 persons had active asylum cases pending in Malaysia, of whom 74 percent were Burmese.
Original reporting in Burmese by Kyaw Min Htun. RFA Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han and Richard Finney.