STU­DENT/TRAF­FICKED

They are sold dreams of work and col­lege ed­u­ca­tion in Malaysia, but the re­al­ity is more like mod­ern-day slav­ery.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Front Page - By ELROI YEE, IAN YEE, LIM MAY LEE and SA­MAN­THA CHOW fb.com/thes­tarRAGE

WE visit Samin at his makeshift home in Cy­ber­jaya un­der the cover of night. Next to it looms the skele­ton of an apart­ment block un­der con­struc­tion. We walk past ply­wood shacks and ship­ping con­tain­ers, an open-air bathing area, up creak­ing stairs. He is ill, and won’t talk to us.

We meet Farid at the dusty ware­house he works at in Jo­hor Baru. He shows us his work space, where he checks all in­com­ing and out­go­ing stock. Where do you sleep? we ask. “I spread the mat­tress out here,” he mo­tions to the con­crete floor be­side his desk. He cooks his meals in a small cor­ner of a store­room, which he is too ashamed to show us.

To speak to Bi­plop, we pick him up at night from a mall in Sepang where he works, and drive far away so his su­per­vi­sor doesn’t see him speaking to us. We stay away from main roads to avoid po­lice. There was once, he says, he had to hide in a dump­ster to avoid ar­rest.

All three boys are Bangladeshis who came to Malaysia hop­ing for a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion, only to re­alise they had be­come vic­tims of an ex­ten­sive and elab­o­rate hu­man traf­fick­ing net­work stretch­ing from here to Bangladesh. They’re now forced to work il­le­gally, sad­dled with debt and treated like crim­i­nals, with lit­tle hope of com­plet­ing their ed­u­ca­tion.

Over the course of their jour­ney here, they have been cheated and ex­torted by col­lege “agents” in their home coun­try and Malaysia, of­ten with help from the money-mak­ing col­leges that were sup­posed to ed­u­cate them.

But to fully un­der­stand their sto­ries, we must first know Karim’s story.

It is broad day­light when we meet Karim, a 25-year-old Bangladeshi col­lege stu­dent. He is sit­ting out­side an in­ter­na­tional col­lege whose eight-storey build­ing stands con­spic­u­ously in a neigh­bour­hood of low-ly­ing shoplots.

He seems happy to meet us, ex­cited to try out his halt­ing English. We learn that it’s his first week in Malaysia, that he’s an en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent, and that he wants to travel around Malaysia dur­ing study breaks. Maybe we can take him, he asks ten­ta­tively, if it’s okay with us. He loves Malaysia, he says bright-eyed. It’s beau­ti­ful.

A beau­ti­ful lie

The traf­fick­ing be­gins with an ed­u­ca­tion agent telling a prospec­tive stu­dent just how won­der­ful it is to study in Malaysia. It’s mod­ern, com­fort­able and Mus­lim-friendly.

All true, but the agent adds lies and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions to the sales pitch. There are jobs ready and wait­ing for you. You can work part-time to pay for your ed­u­ca­tion. The col­lege is rep­utable. You can get a de­gree and get rich.

“Bangladeshi youths are desperate to study,” said Ashik Rah­man, a Bangladeshi mi­grant rights’ ac­tivist based in Malaysia and founder of ad­vo­cacy group Mi­grant88.

“They see it as a means to es­cape the

poverty and un­em­ploy­ment of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, and they pre­fer to study abroad be­cause it comes with added so­cial sta­tus.”

Prey­ing on the stu­dents’ des­per­a­tion, the agents jack up their prices. For visa and col­lege fees for the first year, they charge up to Tk400,000 (RM21,000). In Bangladesh, that’s equiv­a­lent to three years’ wages.

Lured by false prom­ises, some spend their en­tire fam­ily’s sav­ings, sell fam­ily land, or bor­row from banks and loan sharks to make the amount.

Samin and Farid both paid Tk260,000 (RM13,800). Bi­plop paid Tk300,000 (RM16,000), and Karim paid Tk350,000 (RM18,600).

We did the math, and af­ter de­duct­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive fees, the agents and col­leges will nor­mally split around RM13,000 per stu­dent. That means to­gether, they would have over a mil­lion ring­git in rev­enue if they get around 80 stu­dents. In the past three years, over 40,000 Bangladeshi stu­dents came to Malaysia. Now you do the math.

It’s a trap

The cheat­ing con­tin­ues the mo­ment they land in Malaysia, when a Malaysia-based agent takes over. Stu­dents rely on this agent, be­cause they have lit­tle choice – they don’t know how pub­lic trans­porta­tion works, they have few friends if any to turn to, and they have a lim­ited com­mand of English.

At the air­port, where Im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cers are un­der in­struc­tions to de­tain Bangladeshi stu­dents un­til col­lege rep­re­sen­ta­tives ar­rive to re­ceive them, agents of­ten ex­tort them for a lit­tle ex­tra.

“I waited there for two days,” Farid said. The agent wanted him to pay RM200 for an “air­port pickup”, but Farid re­fused on prin­ci­ple, ar­gu­ing that it wasn’t part of the ini­tial agree­ment. At the end of two days with no food or wa­ter pro­vided, he re­lented.

More cheat­ing fol­lowed. The agent took his pass­port to ap­ply for a stu­dent visa. All in­ter­na­tional stu­dents, hav­ing been ac­cepted by a lo­cal col­lege, ar­rive in Malaysia on short-term visas. Af­ter they ar­rive, stu­dents need to sub­mit their pass­ports, aca­demic records and a med­i­cal re­port to their col­leges, which will ap­ply for a stu­dent visa on their be­half.

But Farid’s agent re­fused to re­turn his pass­port un­til he paid an ad­di­tional RM650.

The lies never end, while the agents prof­i­teer off the stu­dents at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity, all the while know­ing that the stu­dents will never re­ceive the univer­sity de­gree they dream of.

And that’s be­fore the worst ex­ploita­tion even be­gins.

Meet­ing a stu­dent traf­ficker

To meet a col­lege agent, R.AGE went un­der­cover as man­agers of a gar­ment re­cy­cling fac­tory look­ing to smug­gle in mi­grant labour from Bangladesh.

“I’ve brought in 8,000 stu­dents from Bangladesh since 2013,” one agent proudly told us. He claimed to rep­re­sent a well-known col­lege op­er­at­ing from a mall in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

Through fur­ther un­der­cover work, we ver­i­fied that he in­deed works from an of­fice within the col­lege, and staff mem­bers re­fer to him for mat­ters re­lated to in­ter­na­tional stu­dents.

He tells us that 98% of the stu­dents are here as cheap labour, not to study. The agent con­tin­ues to sell his ser­vices by telling us that class at­ten­dance can be faked for “a few hun­dred ring­git” to avoid prob­lems with the Im­mi­gra­tion De­part­ment.

“Ev­ery in­sti­tute that gets the Home Min­istry li­cence (to en­rol for­eign stu­dents), is look­ing for money,” the agent re­vealed. “The only place to earn money is through Bangladeshi stu­dents – bring in 200, 300 stu­dents, dis­trib­ute them, your money come back al­ready (sic). This is the way (the col­leges) do it.”

Other agents and col­lege rep­re­sen­ta­tives we met un­der­cover sell us the same line. One man­ager of a lan­guage centre in Kuala Lumpur claims he can of­fer up to three years’ visa by mov­ing stu­dents around in dif­fer­ent lan­guage cour­ses; and given that stu­dent visas have to be re­newed ev­ery year, that gives agents a con­ve­nient ex­cuse to ex­tort more money, usu­ally around RM7,000 per re­newal.

Some told us that even if their col­lege is shut down by the Min­istry of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion (MOHE), they al­ways have sev­eral af­fil­i­ated in­sti­tu­tions to re­dis­tribute the stu­dents, of­ten op­er­ated by the same own­ers or their as­so­ciates.

Through nine months of in­ves­ti­ga­tions, R.AGE com­piled a list of al­most 30 col­leges that show signs of in­volve­ment in this form of hu­man traf­fick­ing, all op­er­at­ing in plain sight.

Un­der­cover vis­its to some of these col­leges re­veal empty class­rooms and de­serted of­fices. Some don’t even bother to set up proper class­rooms, merely op­er­at­ing from small of­fice lots.

This is what de­fines stu­dent traf­fick­ing – gen­uine stu­dents who have paid ex­or­bi­tant fees to study in a for­eign land and are fur­ther ex­torted for more money at ev­ery step, but will not get an ed­u­ca­tion.

“I vis­ited the whole col­lege, and I didn’t see a sin­gle class in ses­sion. The class­rooms are all empty,” said Farid.

“I came for stud­ies. Only for my stud­ies,” added Farid, an­gry. “But when I came here, I was dis­ap­pointed.”

His tone shifts to de­spair. “My dream is over. Ev­ery­thing I thought be­fore is now bro­ken.”

Dis­il­lu­sioned, Farid has had lit­tle choice but to work to re­coup some of his fam­ily’s in­vest­ment in his ed­u­ca­tion. More­over, his mother has fallen ill, and her med­i­cal bills are tak­ing a toll on the fam­ily’s fi­nances.

Stu­dent-turned-crim­i­nal

That’s how for­eign col­lege stu­dents – cheated, ex­torted, and now dis­il­lu­sioned – be­come crim­i­nals. Samin, who is a stu­dent at an “in­ter­na­tional col­lege” in KL, has also re­sorted to work­ing. He is an elec­tri­cian at a con­struc­tion site.

His agent in Bangladesh ped­dled him one of the most com­mon lies agents tell stu­dents – he can work part-time while study­ing to pay for his ed­u­ca­tion. Only when he ar­rived did he learn it is il­le­gal to work un­der a stu­dent visa.

For­eign stu­dents in Malaysia are not al­lowed to work, not even part-time, ex­cept dur­ing long hol­i­days and only with spe­cial per­mis­sion from their col­lege and the Im­mi­gra­tion De­part­ment. If caught, stu­dents face up to five years in prison, RM10,000 in fines, and even whip­ping.

Worse, they will be de­ported at the end of the sen­tence and their pass­ports black­listed, po­ten­tially bar­ring them from seek­ing ed­u­ca­tion in other coun­tries.

It is an as­ton­ish­ingly com­mon nar­ra­tive among Bangladeshi stu­dents. Af­ter nine months of speaking to var­i­ous Bangladeshi com­mu­ni­ties in the Klang Val­ley, we logged over 50 cases where in­ter­na­tional stu­dents have been lied to, ex­ploited, ex­torted, and left with no ed­u­ca­tion and no choice but to work.

By def­i­ni­tion, that’s hu­man traf­fick­ing. “All the el­e­ments (of hu­man traf­fick­ing) are there,” ex­plained Aegile Fer­nan­dez, di­rec­tor of mi­grant rights ad­vo­cacy group Te­na­ganita. “Any­one could be a vic­tim of traf­fick­ing, not just labour­ers or sex work­ers. In these cases, the vic­tims are stu­dents.”

From Malaysia to Bangladesh

To ex­pose the true ex­tent of these traf­fick­ing rings, R.AGE fol­lowed the trail of ex­ploited stu­dents all the way to Bangladesh, where de­mand for ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion has ex­ploded.

In the fran­tic, per­pet­u­ally con­gested cap­i­tal city of Dhaka, we went straight to the source – a col­lege agent’s of­fice, where busi­ness is clearly boom­ing.

On this par­tic­u­lar street in down­town Dhaka, we saw sign­boards ad­ver­tis­ing stu­dent visa ser­vices ev­ery­where – hang­ing from street­lights, crowded on shoplot fa­cades, sten­ciled on walls, and even flash­ing in neon lights at the top of a high-rise.

Tellingly, many of the signs have lo­gos of Malaysian col­leges.

“You can surely work while you are in Malaysia,” said the agent to our un­der­cover jour­nal­ist, while our team lis­tened in from a van parked nearby.

“You won’t face trou­ble if you work while you study be­cause you have all your doc­u­ments as a stu­dent.”

This is the lie that lures thou­sands of stu-

dents to Malaysia each year. Ev­ery col­lege agent re­peated this lie to our un­der­cover jour­nal­ist. Some even en­cour­aged him to work so that he can fund his stud­ies. What about at­tend­ing classes?

“Class sched­ule will be done ac­cord­ing to your choice,” replied the agent. “Maybe you can at­tend classes two days a week. You can work the rest of the time.”

When we de­scribed cases of stu­dent traf­fick­ing to col­lege stu­dents study­ing in Dhaka, none of them were sur­prised. Al­most ev­ery­one knew some­one who had been cheated while study­ing in Malaysia.

One of them, a young lady, told us how her col­lege in Malaysia never held a sin­gle class. She was sent out to work in a restau­rant as part of the col­lege’s “in­tern­ship pro­gramme”, and had her pass­port with­held by the col­lege.

She and her hus­band came to Malaysia with big dreams, but af­ter over a year of be­ing forced to work at a restau­rant for 12-13 hours a day with­out any breaks, her hus­band was caught by Im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cers and de­tained for three months. She was back in Dhaka when we spoke, wait­ing for him to be de­ported so they could try to re­build their lives.

We asked her and all the other vic­tims why they never re­ported their sit­u­a­tion to Malaysian author­i­ties. Al­ways, the rea­son they cite is fear.

Suf­fer­ing in si­lence

Cur­rently, these stu­dents have no safe av­enue for re­dress. Most mi­grant rights’ NGOs in Malaysia are fo­cused on mi­grant labour is­sues, not mi­grant stu­dents. Sim­i­larly, the Bangladeshi High Com­mis­sion mainly han­dles labour cases.

The MOHE has a com­plaints sys­tem, but most stu­dents don’t know about it, and it has only logged 20 com­plaints re­lated to in­ter­na­tional stu­dents since 2013.

Stu­dents also fear ret­ri­bu­tion from their col­leges if they com­plain through of­fi­cial chan­nels. The col­leges can eas­ily get the stu­dents de­ported by stag­ing some kind of dis­ci­plinary ac­tion.

Be­cause of this, there are no statis­tics avail­able on how many stu­dents have been brought into Malaysia un­der traf­ficked sit­u­a­tions, but one pos­si­ble in­di­ca­tor is the num­ber of Bangladeshi stu­dents in the coun­try.

Re­cent statis­tics from MOHE show that there were 30,657 Bangladeshi stu­dents en­rolled in higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions (HEI) in Malaysia in 2015 – a third of the to­tal in­ter­na­tional stu­dent pop­u­la­tion.

When ap­proached by R.AGE for com­ment in Novem­ber 2016, min­istry of­fi­cials in­di­cated that it did not con­sider these stu­dents to be vic­tims of traf­fick­ing, and that they have only re­ceived re­ports of “mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion” by re­cruit­ment agents in the coun­tries of ori­gin.

Dur­ing a fol­low-up in­ter­view a month later, a min­istry of­fi­cial flatly de­clined to dis­cuss

the is­sue, but sent a writ­ten re­ply deny­ing that traf­fick­ing of stu­dents takes place.

It was only when we man­aged to get Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Datuk Seri Idris Ju­soh’s at­ten­tion sev­eral months later that we started get­ting some an­swers.

“We dis­cov­ered this was hap­pen­ing when our EMGS (Ed­u­ca­tion Malaysia Global Ser­vices) sys­tem picked up a surge in the num­ber of Bangladeshi stu­dents,” said Idris. EMGS is the on­line plat­form that mon­i­tors and pro­cesses all in­ter­na­tional stu­dent ap­pli­ca­tions.

“We have taken ac­tion against nine col­leges in 2016 and 2017, so the num­bers have dropped. Only 1,100 Bangladeshi stu­dent visa ap­pli­ca­tions have been ap­proved so far this year, com­pared to 16,000 last year and 23,000 the year be­fore,” he added.

Im­mi­gra­tion crimes

Still, that means over 40,000 Bangladeshi stu­dents have been ac­cepted to study in Malaysia over the past three years alone, and from what we’ve heard, many of them were traf­ficked, or at least vic­tims of some form of ex­ploita­tion. A large pro­por­tion of these stu­dents would now be un­doc­u­mented, not ac­counted for in of­fi­cial statis­tics, and there are many more from pre­vi­ous years.

And with the re­cent clam­p­down on un­doc­u­mented mi­grants, many of these stu­dents who are now un­doc­u­mented are be­ing hauled up for im­mi­gra­tion crimes. The gov­ern­ment ran a re-hir­ing pro­gramme to le­galise un­doc­u­mented mi­grant work­ers by grant­ing them “E-kads” ahead of the clam­p­down, but re­mark­ably, the agents found a

Photo: YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

*Posed by a model

— Photos: SHANJEEV REDDY/R.AGE

R.AGE un­der­cover jour­nal­ists fol­lowed the ‘stu­dent traf­fick­ing’ trail all the way to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where they met ‘ed­u­ca­tion agents’ who charge Bangladeshis up to RM21,000 to study in Malaysia.

A scene cap­tured from the slums of Dhaka. Many stu­dent traf­fick­ing vic­tims spent their fam­ily sav­ings to study in Malaysia, be­liev­ing it would be a chance to es­cape the cy­cle of poverty.

Many vic­tims are forced to work il­le­gally un­der in­hu­mane con­di­tions to re­pay their debts like this young woman, who worked 12-13 hours a day with­out break. Her hus­band was even­tu­ally de­tained for three months, and de­ported.

This agent claimed he in­vested tens of thou­sands of ring­git in Malaysian col­leges, in or­der to be­come their agent. Col­leges and agents split a profit of about RM13,000 per stu­dent.

These traf­fick­ing vic­tims have been stuck in Malaysia for years, build­ing high-rise con­do­mini­ums but liv­ing in shanty makeshift ghet­tos called ‘kongsi’. A Bangladeshi man re­cently died af­ter a kongsi caught fire in Ta­pah.

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