Human traffickers have kept hundreds of Rohingya Muslims captive in houses in northern Malaysia, beating them, depriving them of food, and demanding a ransom from their families, according to detailed accounts by people who were caught up in the practice.
The accounts suggest that trafficking gangs are shifting their operations into Malaysia as Thai authorities crack down on jungle camps near the border, which have become prisons for Muslim asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
Police in the northern Malaysian states of Penang and Kedah have conducted several raids on houses in recent months, including an operation in February that discovered four Rohingya men bound together with metal chains in an apartment.
Reuters’ interviews reveal a trafficking network on a far bigger scale than Malaysian authorities have acknowledged so far, with brokers herding groups of hundreds of Rohingya at night over the border and holding them captive.
The abuse in Malaysia is the latest oppression against the Rohingya. They are mostly stateless Muslims from western Myanmar, where clashes with majority Buddhists since the middle of 2012 have killed hundreds and forced about 140,000 into squalid camps.
Many of the tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar by boat have fallen into the hands of human traffickers at sea who then hold them hostage in remote Thai camps near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay thousands of US dollars to release them, according to a Reuters investigation published on Dec. 5 last year.
Some were beaten and killed, others held in cages where they suffered malnutrition. The Reuters investigation found that Thai authorities were sometimes working with the traffickers in an effort to push the Rohingyas out of Thailand because immigration detention camps were becoming overwhelmed with asylum-seekers.
In January, Thai police said they rescued hundreds of Rohingya Muslims from a remote camp in southern Thailand, a raid they said was prompted by the Reuters investigation, and had launched a manhunt for the “kingpins,” who routinely smuggle people through southern Thailand to Malaysia with impunity.
The intensified trafficking of Rohingyas into Muslim-majority Malaysia threatens to undermine its anti-human-trafficking record, which is at imminent risk of being downgraded by the US to a par with North Korea.
It also highlights the porous state of Malaysia’s 500km-long northern border, with thousands of Rohingya entering unhindered at a time when the Malaysian government has taken a tough public stance against illegal immigration.
For the desperate Rohingya, Malaysia is the promised land, where at least 30,000 already live. The country does not give them full refugee rights, but has allowed them to stay and register with the UN. Thousands have picked up work at the bottom rungs of the informal economy.
Mohamed Einous, a 19-year-old Rohingya from Buthidaung township, felt relief sweep over him as he scrambled over a border wall with a group of 270 refugees in middle of last month, about a month after he left Myanmar. The crossing took place at night using two ladders supplied by his captors.
“I believed I could make money here,” Einous told reporters.
HOPE OF FREEDOM
His hope of freedom was short-lived. Handed to a new gang of brokers on the Malaysia side of the border, the Rohingya were packed into vans and driven to a house with blacked-out windows the traffickers said was in the border town of Padang Besar.
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.”