Once there, the brokers beat Einous with long wooden sticks and threatened to kill him if he did not secure a payment of US$2,000 from his parents in Myanmar. Distraught at Einous’ cries over the telephone, his parents sold their family home for US$1,600 and borrowed the rest from relatives, Einous said.
“There are no words to express how sorry I feel,” Einous told reporters on Feb. 21, just hours after the brokers dumped him near a market in the town of Bukit Mertajam in Penang, ending his eight-day nightmare in the house.
“Now we don’t have land. My parents have nowhere to live,” he said.
Einous said the brokers in Thailand had told him he could pay a much smaller amount (“whatever I wanted”) to be released once in Malaysia. He said the refugees only received rice once a day in the house and were packed so tightly into two rooms that they could not lie down.
Abdul Hamid, a 23-year-old motorbike mechanic from Sittwe, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, recalled similar conditions at the compound where he was imprisoned for a week with more than 200 others in Penang.
About 16 guards kept watch over them in two shifts. The traffickers’ boss, a man in his 30s known as “Razak,” who wore a suit and steel-rimmed spectacles, regularly kicked, beat and threatened the cowering prisoners, Hamid said.
“They said we don’t have money to give you food. You need to get money if you want to be free,” Hamid told reporters in Kuala Lumpur following his release.
Malaysia, a labor-short country with an estimated 2 million undocumented workers that offers higher wages than its neighbors, has long struggled with a reputation as a haven for human trafficking. Like Thailand, Malaysia is at risk of being downgraded in the US Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons report from the tier two watchlist to the lowest rank of tier three.
The scale of the problem appears to have surged in recent months.
“It is definitely increasing,” said Chris Lewa, coordinator of Rohingya advocacy group Arakan Project, who regularly interviews those who make the journey. “In more and more stories I have heard recently they [Rohingya] have been detained in Malaysia.”
Several of the 10 witnesses cited the brokers as telling them they had bribed Malaysian immigration officials to turn a blind eye when they crossed the border.
Reuters found no direct evidence of corruption by Malaysian officials.
Five Malaysian immigration officials were arrested in 2009 for working with a smuggling syndicate to traffic Rohingya into the country.
“We didn’t see any officials on the Malaysia side,” said Korimullah, a 17-year-old from Maungdaw township, who spent more than three months in Thai camps and was then held by traffickers in a house in the northern Malaysian city of Alor Star. “The brokers said they had already given money to them.”