There are an estimated 212,000 people living in modern slavery in Malaysia (GSI 2018). The majority of those exploited are migrant and undocumented workers in the country. Foreign workers constitute more than 20 percent of the Malaysian workforce and typically migrate voluntarily—often illegally—to Malaysia from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian countries, mostly in pursuit of better economic opportunities. Some of these migrants are subjected to forced labour or debt bondage by their employers, employment agents, or informal labour recruiters when they are unable to pay the fees for recruitment and associated travel.
Thiri came to Malaysia in 2007 from Myanmar without documents. He was brought to immigration officials and was told he was being deported to the Thai-Malaysian border. However, he was forced into the back of a vehicle and taken to a house where traffickers demanded money to go back to Malaysia. Those that could not pay, including Thiri were kept in the house and threatened with forced labour. Thiri and six others tried to escape and have the traffickers arrested but police were involved in the trafficking and they were taken back to the house where they were being kept. Thiri was forced to cook and clean, sell drugs, and become the traffickers’ ‘bodyguard,’ beating new arrivals who also could not pay the fee to return to Malaysia. Eventually Thiri was able to escape.
I was brought by immigration officials to be deported to the Thai-Malaysian border. When the immigration officer arrived, he said, “You all were deported to the Thai-Malaysia border because you have no documents, and also you cannot go back to Burma.” This immigration officer was Malaysian, and he spoke Malay to us. He knew we were all from Burma. There were 60 of us in the group. After the immigration officer spoke, we were forced to get into vehicles. . . . There were five vehicles all together. Mine had 13 people in the back. The driver and two immigration officers were in the front and 13 detainees in the back. It was a van with seats in the back. There were windows, but you could not open them. We could see outside through the windows, but from the outside, people could not see into the van because there was a sticker over the windows. The van was white, and it said Immigration Department on the side. There were no lights on the van. All of the vehicles were the same kind.
We were all handcuffed, and we were brought to the Thai-Malaysian border, to a town in Malaysia . . . . At this town, there was one shop that the immigration officer stopped at. He parked behind the shop and made a telephone call somewhere. Twenty minutes later, some people came to where we were. We were forced to get out of the immigration car, and we changed to another car. These people who had arrived, they had guns. When the detainees were transferred from one vehicle to another, we were watched by these men holding guns on us. They watched us because they were afraid the detainees would run away.
We were brought to some house. I think this house belonged to these traffickers. After we arrived at the house, the traffickers asked us all to give money, 2,500 ringgit [$730] per person, to go back to Malaysia. They divided us into two groups, those who could pay and those who could not. If someone can pay, he is allowed to telephone someone to get the money. The traffickers gave him a bank account, and then he can call his friends or family to bank in at this account.
I can’t pay this money, so I was in the other group. The people who can’t pay, the trafficker threatened them. He said, “I will send you to the fishing boats.” The traffickers tortured the people who couldn’t pay the money.
There were seven people who cannot pay the money, including me. We were scared that the trafficker was going to send us to the fishing boat or somewhere. We were scared, so one night we tried to get away from this house. At night we escaped from the traffickers and walked through the forest. We saw a light in the distance, so we went there. We waited there for a bus or a car to come along. While we were there waiting, a taxi came to us. Four of us hired this taxi, and they drove away. The rest of us, three people including me, went into the shop, and we waited for that taxi to come back.
While we were waiting for this taxi, the traffickers came to this shop. So we tried to run away. We were running away, and we saw some other people, so we ran up to them to ask for help to get to the nearest bus stop or the nearest taxi stand. These people asked us for some money. They said that if we paid them some money, they would take us. If we could not pay, they would not help us. While we were talking with these people, the traffickers arrived. It was daylight by this time, and we saw a police car near there. We went over to the police and asked for help. We said that some gangsters were chasing us. We asked the police to arrest the traffickers. The policeman said that he could not arrest them, and he called his commanding officer.
When the officer arrived there, we discovered that this officer and the traffickers were friends. They knew each other. So then we were trying to escape from the police and the traffickers at the same time. We could not run far. We got arrested, and the one of the traffickers beat us up. He forced us to get into a car. The car that he forced us to get into belonged to the traffickers, but the police drove this car. These policemen were Malaysian police.
We were brought back to the same house. The other four from our group of seven, the ones who had taken the taxi, they were also at the house. The traffickers beat up all seven of us. They were shouting at us, saying, “Why did you run away? You cannot run away here!” They were kicking us and using motorcycle chains to hit us. They hit us and kicked us everywhere. One hit me on the back of the head with brass knuckles, and also on my left temple and right cheek. Some of my ribs on my right side were broken. I was hit on the back and kicked in the shins. I have pain here until now. A lot of people hit me; I don’t remember exactly who or how.
After we were beaten, we all fainted. The traffickers threw some water on us. One hour later, some of them came back and hit us all over again.
I couldn’t eat anything for two days. . . . The traffickers asked us to telephone some people to get money. Before it was 2,500 ringgit they wanted. Now they asked for more. It wasn’t 2,500 ringgit anymore, because we had run away. So the seven of us had to pay 3,300 ringgit [$960] now. They said, “If you cannot pay this money, tomorrow you will go to the fishing boat.”
So all seven of us telephoned to try to get money. Of the seven, three were able to get the money. The four who could not get the money, they were bought by one person who was Thai. This person bought those four people.
The other three, including me, were able to get friends who agreed to pay the traffickers. The other two were okay; their friends and family were able to bank into the traffickers’ account. But I had a problem because my friend didn’t pay this money. The two persons who had paid were sent back to Malaysia. Only I stayed there. I was beaten again.
For four days, I had to stay in the house. I didn’t go anywhere. Another group of detainees who had been deported to the Thai-Malaysian border came in.
The traffickers got me to be a sort of leader of this new group of 60. I was the security for the traffickers. I had to clean the house and cook for everybody.
Since I was the last one left from the last group and couldn’t pay, they turned me into a sort of trafficker. I had to beat up anybody who didn’t pay. I had to do whatever the traffickers told me to do for three months. I had to beat people up and take care of the house. Sometimes the traffickers would have me sell drugs. Some policemen would come to this house and ask for money. When the police had to be paid, the traffickers didn’t go to the police; I did that.
These policemen came occasionally. Usually they would ask for 500 ringgit [$145]. The police were Malaysian police—they wore a blue uniform like the one they still wear. It was always police who wore the same uniform.
One day the traffickers told me that there would be a police raid. They told me to stay put in the house and not to go anywhere, just take care of the detainees. The police came to raid the house, and I decided not to stay there. I went out to look from a distance. The police went in and just looked around. The detainees were there, but they made no arrests and did nothing, just left.
The next day, I thought that my situation was very dangerous because everybody thinks that I am working with the traffickers. I was scared to stay there, so I asked the traffickers to allow me go home. But the traffickers don’t want me to go. They said they would give me 50 ringgit [$15] per day, they would give me a telephone, they would give me a motorcycle. They would give me everything I needed.
But I didn’t want to work for them, so I waited one day until there were no traffickers in the house, and then I ran away. I had made a friend who was a taxi driver, and this taxi driver took me to the bus station. I took a bus to the place I had been living. I had a little money because I had been working for the traffickers, so I had money to pay for the bus fare. The bus fare was three ringgit and 60 sens [$1.05]. I also paid the taxi driver 100 ringgit [$29] to take me to the bus station.
The house was in Malaysia, not Thailand. I can’t say exactly when I left the house, but it must have been early April 2009.
Narrative credit to Amnesty International
Originally published in ‘Trapped: The Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Malaysia’