STORY BY Elroi Yee, Ian Yee, and Lim May Lee

THERE’S desperation in the air in Bangladesh. You won’t understand it unless you’ve been there. On the perpetually gridlocked streets of Dhaka, buses often overflow onto rooftops as tricycles swarm among them. Everyone is honking, all the time, desperate to move even an inch.

On sidewalks where the traffic coats you in dust, people brush past you, bustling along, often balancing wares on their heads. Even those who sit waiting seem like they’re waiting desperately. And in the steady, serious tone of university student Sabil Akash’s voice, there is desperation too:

“Sometimes it seems like we’re not studying, we’re doing a business deal,” he says, in clear, precise English. “Our parents, they are having a business deal. They are trying to find profit from us.”

We had flown to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to continue our investigations into student trafficking. To help give us perspective, we decided to spend one morning talking to university students. That’s when we met Sabil along with a group of his university friends on a curb off yet another busy road, just outside a local university. They were gathered around a guitar, singing. Around them, hundreds – if not thousands – of university students thronged the street, easily identifiable by the student ID tags around their necks.

A Malaysian might find Sabil’s sentiments a strange one to express. But it belies the peculiar kind of desperation afflicting Bangladesh’s youth. Their families need them to provide, and to provide in the job market today, they need a college education.

Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough university places for all these would-be students.
“That’s why so many are interested to study abroad. We do not have enough seats (in local universities) to accommodate our population,” says Sabil.

Bangladesh has a burgeoning youth population. While that bodes well for the economy, it also means more competition for jobs and university placements. Everybody wants to get ahead, desperate to survive.

The Long Road Home

R.AGE journalists travelled to Dhaka to the source of the trafficking as part of it’s investigations. Watch the final episode of the Student/Trafficked documentary series.

Black market education

IN Nilkhet, around the corner from the largest higher education institution in Dhaka, there is a sprawling black market for books.

According to Bangladeshi migrant rights activist Ashikur Rahman, the entire complex of makeshift stalls and tiny shoplots sprouted from a handful of vendors selling secondhand books. Today, it is an entire industry of enterprising Bangladeshis pirating books for sale. Many were selling academic books for tertiary education.

If there was any doubt about Bangladeshi youths’ desire for education, the Nilkhet book market put them to rest.

We watched as young boys photocopied books en masse, bound the pages together and put them on racks for sale. Some were even in the business of refurbishing old books by cutting off their worn sides.

“Bangladeshis want education, but many might be too poor to afford it. This is how we make it affordable,” Ashik tells us, as we stood on a particularly busy intersection of alleyways in the middle of the book market, trying not be knocked over by the steady tide of students brushing past us.

Selling lies

WE spent much of our time in Dhaka in a nondescript van, listening to conversations between our undercover “student” and recruitment agents.

Instead of counselling the student about possible education pathways, most of these agents made baseless promises to “sell” their services. The most common lie: “You can work in Malaysia on a student visa”. This is not true.

The next agent we meet tells us the same thing. And the next. Out of five agents we met, four sold our undercover student the same lie.

One agent named a handful of colleges that he had connections with. Another boasted of connections within the Malaysian Embassy. One even agreed to smuggle in cheap factory workers under student visas.

The Student Trafficking Trade

R.AGE spent a year undercover investigating a new breed of human traffickers in Malaysia.

The Epicentre

“THE new generation of Bangladeshi youths want quality education. And they need to go abroad for that, because the number of universities in Bangladesh are limited,” said Ashik, taking us on a stroll through what he calls “the epicentre of international student recruitment in Bangladesh”.

It’s a busy street in the appropriately named town of Farmgate, in central Dhaka. There, we are shocked to find just how big an industry student recruitment is in Bangladesh. Everywhere around us were signages openly advertising student visa services, under different guises: Visa processing services, education counselling, study abroad programmes.

Most of the agents we met undercover have their offices in this vicinity.

While sitting with Sabil’s friends on the curb, we ask them about these agents. “Yeah, there are a lot of agents over here,” one boy exclaims. “There are so many that you can’t even count. Some are good, some are also fake.”

“They reach us through email, Facebook, even through mail and through flyers.”

One boy related how he consulted with a number of agents about the possibility of studying in Malaysia: “What I found is, out of ten agents, only three are good. The other seven, they are fake.”

We ask if they know anyone who has fallen for their lies, and the response is almost unanimous: “Yes, of course. It is common.”

And Sabil and his friends are by no means in the throes of poverty. They are urban youths who are part of Bangladesh’s growing middle class. Further away from the capital, that desperation only grows.

“Over here (in Dhaka), we have more information,” says Sabil. “But outside Dhaka, it is not only easier (for agents to cheat students), it is easier than you can imagine.” Around him the traffic continues. “Who wouldn’t take the chance of going abroad? If you don’t have a good future, and someone offers you a better future, wouldn’t you take it?”

A better life – that was the promise sold to Pari, 22, a Bangladeshi student who agreed to meet us out of desperation.

When we met her, her husband was in a Malaysian prison for an immigration offence, while she had returned to Bangladesh to care for her sick father.

Both entered Malaysia under student visas, sold on a dream of lucrative part-time work along with a degree course in a comfortable country. The reality was a sham college, with no classes beyond basic language skills, that sent them out to work on “paid internships”. These were in fact low-skilled work in restaurants, on 12-hour shifts, with the college taking the lion’s share of their wages.

“With the money we paid the agent, we could have studied at a proper university or college.”

Instead, they spent their year in Malaysia often going hungry because they had no money. They had taken loans to the tune of Tk620,000 (RM30,000) to pay their agent. In Bangladesh, that’s the equivalent of around six years’ wages. “We were shattered, completely.”

It has become accepted wisdom that education is the way out of the vicious cycle of poverty. And in many cases, that might well be true. But for scores of Bangladeshi students who begged and borrowed their way to Malaysia, lured on by promises of a brighter future, the exact opposite is true.

Since the launch of Student/Trafficked, the government has tightened student visa applications from Bangladesh significantly. Yet, many victims remain trapped in Malaysia. To find out how you can help, go to

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