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STORY BY Elroi Yee, Ian Yee, and Lim May Lee
VIDEOS BY R.AGE

THERE’S desperation in the air in Bangladesh. 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.

For most of our time in Dhaka, we found ourselves stuck in a nondescript van on the curbs of one of these these streets, listening in on the conversations being picked up by a hidden microphone on our colleague nearby.

He was posing undercover as a prospective college student, a young, hopeful man seeking an education abroad. But the people he was speaking to were seasoned human traffickers. They call themselves “education agents”, but their real business involves scamming desperate Bangladeshi youths with the promise of a life-changing college education and job opportunities in gleaming Kuala Lumpur – “the Europe of Asia”, they claim – that would change their family’s fortunes.

They do a good job of selling the dream, too. The reality, however, is that their young victims are being groomed to be trafficked into modern-day slavery. There are no job opportunities, no real college waiting for them in Kuala Lumpur – most are just empty classrooms, a front for their real business.

And that business, student trafficking, is the perpetual exploitation of young men and women, for what we’re told is millions of dollars in profit.

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.

The scam

THE most common lie the agents told is that college students can work part-time in Malaysia on a student visa, and that’s the crux of the scam. In Malaysia, dozens of victims we spoke to said this convinced their families to take out their life savings, to sell land, to loan money, even, just to pay the agents, thinking they could earn it back through part-time work.

Saddled with debt in a foreign country, and with an agent who could easily get you arrested and deported, these would-be college students are then forced to work illegally as cheap labour (often in dangerous construction sites), all while facing constant exploitation.

For some, it can feel like a never-ending cycle, an inevitable spiral into life as an undocumented illegal immigrant once their student visas expire.

Mahfuz (not his real name) had been in that cycle for four years when we spoke to him. Before he came to Malaysia, he was halfway through a four-year degree course at Michael Madhusudan University College in Bangladesh, studying philosophy. And then he met a college agent.

The agent sold him the prospect of a more prestigious degree in Malaysia, assuring him he would be able to work part-time to pay off the steep – and extremely inflated – fees.

Mahfuz’s family were desperate. His father had suffered two strokes, and could no longer work. His only other sibling was less than ten years old. Their hopes and dreams lie squarely on Mahfuz’s shoulders. They scraped all their savings and even took out a loan to pay the agent. Mahfuz quit his degree course, believing he was doing the right thing for his family.

But it was all a lie. The college in Kuala Lumpur was fake. It didn’t offer any classes. They extorted Mahfuz for more money, then withheld his passport. There was no cushy job, there was no prestigious degree. Mahfuz was left to rot.

With no other choice, Mahfuz started working illegally at construction sites so he could send some money home. And just like that, four years have passed. He could speak English once, he says, but now he’s forgotten how. Four years in a construction site can do that.

Still in his early 20s, Mahfuz is friendly and mild-mannered, but the very thought of his agent makes him angry. He speaks in a determined tone about getting his life back on track, about applying for a legitimate work visa, earning enough money and putting this all behind him.
But his tone finally changes when we ask about his family. We could see the tears welling in his eyes.

“They don’t know what I do here in Malaysia,” he says in a combination of broken English and Malay.

“And why didn’t you tell them?” we ask.

“Pain,” he replies, patting his hand on his heart. “Pain.”

Student visas in Malaysia have to be renewed annually, so after a year is up, most victims like Mahfuz are forced to renew their visas to continue working off their debt – and they often have to pay the very same trafficking agents to do so, continuing the cycle of exploitation.

The alternative is to allow their visas to expire, after which they will be considered “illegal” migrants by the Malaysian government, subject to arrest, detention, and deportation at any time.

After four years, Mahfuz decided to take a different option, paying another “visa agent” RM7,000 to get a legitimate work visa (he earns less than RM1,500 a year), which he was told was part of a new government “rehiring” scheme to legalise undocumented foreign workers.

We could hear the optimism in his voice. This would be his long-awaited ticket to a “legal” existence in Malaysia. Sadly, the Malaysian Immigration Department would later tell us that the scheme does not apply to student trafficking victims like Mahfuz – but that hasn’t stopped agents from taking their money with even more empty promises.

The agents

IN Malaysia, getting the college agents to speak with us was surprisingly – and worryingly – easy.
All we had to do was go undercover as someone looking to recruit foreign workers. The agents were all more than happy to meet up.

We met one of them at a coffee shop just outside Kuala Lumpur city. We were supposed to meet his boss, a “Datuk” (an honorific title in Malaysia) who owns a college, but we were told at the last minute that this man would meet us instead.

He doesn’t beat around the bush. He plainly tells us he can secure foreign workers for us by using the college to issue them student visas.

What’s more, he can keep them in Malaysia for up to 10 years by enrolling them in a succession of courses, from basic language courses and diplomas all the way up to a PhD.

“It just depends on whether you can pay the cost or not,” he says.

“Everything to do with the visa, I’m handling, so you don’t have to worry. If you agree, and you have no objections, I can process it tomorrow.”

To get him to reveal more, our journalist plays the unconvinced client. And it works.
He starts to boast: “If you are talking about Bangladeshi students, no-one knows better than me. I’ve brought in 8,000 Bangladeshi students on my own.”

“Since 2013.”

Given that each student pays between RM15,000 and RM20,000 to these agents, even if this man received 1% from each deal, he would already be a millionaire.

He continues to say that his operation extends to an entire network of similar colleges.
“For the first two years, maybe (the student) enrols in Diploma in Healthcare. After that, you withdraw, and transfer to another college. You can explain that the subject you chose is quite difficult for you.”

So even though his college has actually lost its international student recruitment license, he simply channels the “students” to other partner institutions.

“We do have something like a collaboration, like a group of companies,” he says, proceeding to list out the names of the colleges he claims are part of the scam. It’s the main reason they invest in a license for recruiting international students.

“Every institute that gets the (license) approval, they are looking for money. And the only place to earn quick and easy money, is Bangladesh – bring in 200-300 Bangladeshi students, and you have already earned your money back.”

The Student Trafficking Trade

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

The desperation

MALAYSIA-BASED human rights activist Ashikur Rahman has been on a mission to put an end to these student traffickers, as well as the larger syndicates involved.

With his help, we followed the their trail to Dhaka.

“This is the epicentre of the international student trafficking trade,” he says of the town where our van was parked, the aptly named Farmgate.

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.

“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,” says Ashik.

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

We met him along with a group of his friends just outside a local university. They were gathered around a guitar, singing. Hundreds, if not thousands, more thronged the street, easily identifiable by the student tags around their necks.

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, with around 50% considered youth. While that bodes well for the economy, it also means more competition for jobs and university placements. Youth unemployment in 2017 was measured at 11%.

Everybody wants to get ahead, desperate to survive.

“Yeah, there are a lot of agents over here,” one of the students 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 flyers.”

Another student 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 several others 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?”

Or as Ashikur puts it, these agents are taking advantage of the students’ “innocence”.

Farid was one such student. He was forced to drop out of the private Bangladesh University of Business and Technology after the first three semesters due to financial reasons, and that’s when an agent approached his father.

They paid the agent the equivalent of nearly three years’ wages, with clear instructions on the course he wanted – a degree in computer science and engineering. When he finally received his offer letter, it was for a diploma in culinary arts.

“He told me ‘don’t worry, when you get to Malaysia, you can change the course by talking to the principal’,” he recalls. “I didn’t trust him, but my father did.”

But when he arrived in Malaysia, he was told the only way he could change course was by waiting the entire year, and reapplying for a new visa.

Just like Mahfuz, he was forced to work illegally to recoup the three years’ wages he paid the agent.

“I came here to study – only to study,” says Farid, knowing the common perception among Malaysians that Bangladeshis flout visa rules so they can work in Malaysia.

“But now, my dream is destroyed.”

The bookmarket

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

According to Ashikur, 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 puts 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,” Ashikur 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.

The Epicentre

AFTER months of undercover work in Malaysia, speaking to dozens of victims and traffickers, and investigating [HOW MANY] colleges involved, we finally found ourselves standing in the heart of the student trafficking trade – Farmgate.

Armed with a hidden microphone and camera, we worked with a Bangladeshi journalist who posed as a prospective university student to meet with five of these agents.

Ashikur claims that the agents are part of mafia-like syndicates – another reason why victims stuck in Malaysia rarely send word home of their plight or to warn others. They’re afraid of what the syndicates would do to their family members.

But on the surface, everything looks pretty legit. Their offices and the agents look proper, but the minute they start talking, the lies are evident.

“You can surely work while you are a student in Malaysia, since you have all the right documents as a student,” says one agent.

“If you want, you can work for two years after one year of studies. It’s up to you.”
The truth is, international students are only allowed to work part-time under strict circumstances, in very specific jobs, and only during semester breaks. You’d also have to get approval from the Higher Education Ministry.

Another agent even offered to arrange for jobs for the students, which was at least partially true – we’ve spoken to victims who showed up to their colleges for registration, only to be ferried to work in construction sites.

When we posed as a factory manager looking to recruit workers, one of the agents offered outright to traffic them to Malaysia for us, using the same bogus college system.

“In 2016, we brought 35 students to Malaysia. We have direct contact with three or four colleges,” says the agent.

It would cost between RM8,500 to RM16,500 per student, depending on the “category” of the student visa.

But is it safe?

“It’s okay, safe. Sometimes, it creates some problems, but we can manage this here. You can tell (the authorities) ‘we are the students of this university, we have a part-time job’. That’s what you tell them.”

One even boasted about connections at the Malaysian Embassy.

These scams are particularly worrying for Abdur Rahim Khan, who runs one of the largest student recruitment agencies in Bangladesh.

“There are quite a number of consulting firms in Bangladesh promoting education in Malaysia, but very few are doing it genuinely like us.

“Small colleges, institutes and language centres (in Malaysia), they are involved in this business. They are the main ring leaders. They need the students, they need the money. Whether (the students) come for study or for work, it doesn’t matter,” he says.

THE ‘KONGSI’

BACK in Kuala Lumpur, our journalists have spent weeks trying to find a way inside a “kongsi”, the industry term for the makeshift ghettos built to house construction workers.

Most are heavily walled-up and guarded, some even with “protection” from local gangs, or so we’re made to believe. Clearly, the construction companies do not want outsiders to know what conditions are like on the inside.

Many of the student trafficking victims we spoke to said they live in these kongsi, but we’ve only heard rumours of how bad conditions are. Finally, a Bangladeshi contact agrees to smuggle us in.

We dress up as migrant workers ourselves, keeping our cameras in nondescript bags. Our contact reminds us to keep a low profile – this kongsi is watched over by local Indian thugs.
Inside, most of the rumours were confirmed. The workers were crammed together in tiny plywood shacks, with over a hundred inhabitants to a toilet, and electricity dangerously tapped from a nearby construction site. It’s a tinderbox of fire hazards, walled off from the outside world with no clear escape route. It’s no wonder that reports of fires at kongsi are common.

Even as we were investigating the issue, a deadly fire razed down a kongsi two hours away from Kuala Lumpur. One Bangladeshi worker was killed.

In our first kongsi visit, we immediately find stories of student trafficking.

Jamal’s family borrowed heavily to pay an education agent to bring him to Malaysia. After a string of lies, exploitation and outright extortion, he has resigned himself to life in a kongsi as a low-skilled labourer.

But for now, Jamal wants to show off.

“This is my workplace,” he says, as he shows us a photo of an under-construction toilet, taken on his mobile phone.

“And this is during our meeting time.” It’s a photo of construction workers gathered before what looks like a Malaysian superviser. “And this is the work I do.” He scrolls through photos of pipe fittings, toilet bowls, sinks.

There are photos of a bathroom nearing completion. “All very beautiful,” he says in halting English. “My work, my project.”

“What about the toilets here in the kongsi?” we ask. Jamal scoffs at the comparison: “No that one is bad,” he says, shaking his head almost violently. “I don’t like it.”

The main reason Jamal and his 400 co-workers are being forced to live under such conditions is simple – money.

“For most contractors, their priority is to make as much money as possible,” says Construction Industry Development Board Malaysia (CIDB) chief executive Datuk Ahmad Asri Abdul Hamid.
“If (contractors) were to provide proper housing, the cost would be higher, so the natural choice would be to provide kongsi.”

Compounding this problem is the lack of laws on providing housing for construction workers. In a rather strange gap in legislation, the Workers’ Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act 1990 only covers the mining and plantation sectors – not construction.

Although there are guidelines put forward by government agencies and the International Labour Organisation, none are legally binding. Employers who do not provide adequate amenities for construction workers cannot be punished, unless the amenities run afoul of basic health and sanitation laws, and pose an immediate health risk. That is an extremely low standard of living.
We ask Ahmad Asri how he feels when he visits construction worker hostels. “Sad,” he says simply. “I don’t know what other word to use, when you see people living in those kind of conditions. I don’t think any Malaysian can accept (living like that).”

At the time, the Malaysian government was planning a new law to regulate construction worker housing. More than a year later, the law is still not in place.

But to Ashikur, the inhumane living conditions are just the tip of the iceberg. Because most of the workers are undocumented, having lost their student visas or had their passports confiscated by agents, they are open to all kinds of exploitation.

“These kongsi are literally outside the law,” he says. “Workers are routinely extorted, cheated of their salary, overworked, have their passports taken away. All of this happens in the kongsi, all the time.”

There, among the dense undergrowth, are shacks made of scrap wood and tarpaulin – even more poorly built than those in the kongsi. This is where the workers sleep.

According to the workers, there have been a series of immigration enforcement raids at the kongsi, so now even the kongsi are not safe for them. Some sleep out in the open, or under a highway underpass, ready to sprint into hiding if they receive news of a raid.

Activists have slammed these raids for victimising undocumented workers, even though most are actually victims of some form of trafficking or exploitation.

“I made a mistake coming here (to Malaysia),” Jamal tells us. “If I knew it would be this way, I wouldn’t have come.”

But he’s already here. He’s crossed into Malaysian borders, and Malaysian laws dictate that he is working here illegally, even though he was cheated.

He can choose to return to Bangladesh, but that would mean forfeiting the huge amount he paid to get here in the first place and returning to a mountain of debt impossible to repay. He could try filing a report, but we know how that would end. Jamal has no choice but to stay.

THE RESPONSE

WHEN informed about the student trafficking situation in Malaysia by our journalists, both the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) promised stern action.

Though officials said they were aware of the issue, MOHE drastically reduced the number of student visa approvals from Bangladesh after it became aware of our investigations.

In 2015 and 2016 alone, nearly 40,000 student visas were approved, with activists insisting that the large majority are victims of some form of trafficking or exploitation. After our first meeting with officials in late 2016, the number suddenly dipped to just over 1,000 in the first half of 2017.

Abdur Rahim confirms this, saying that the Malaysian government has stopped issuing visas for colleges.

“This is good, because college students don’t go to Malaysia to study – only university students do,” he claims.

Then Home Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who was also Deputy Prime Minister at the time, promised to clamp down on the traffickers and provide support for victims.
But despite our investigations having flagged over 20 colleges as being involved in trafficking, only a handful had their international student licenses revoked.

Meanwhile, immigration raids were ramped up, with an estimated 140,000 migrant workers detained and deported in the first half of 2017.

Police and immigration enforcement officers have said that their investigations into student trafficking are ongoing, but most of these colleges have been allowed to continue operating.

We have not heard of any victims we’ve spoken to receiving support from the government either.

THE RETURN

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

She and her husband were high school sweethearts who dreamed of a better life outside of Bangladesh, together. In 2015, they paid an education agent Tk620,000 (RM30,000), the equivalent of six years’ wages, to make it a reality.

By the time she spoke to us two years later, they had lost almost everything, but that’s not what she cried to us about. It was the fact that her husband was thousands of kilometres away, stuck in a Malaysian prison. All Pari had were letters, posters and cards, which they hand-made for each other.

The minute they arrived at their college in Malaysia, they knew something was wrong. “They took our passports, and never gave them back to us,” she says.

Within days, the college said there wouldn’t be classes for the first month, and offered them jobs instead. They were “paid internships”, which were in fact low-skilled work in restaurants, even though the course they had applied for was accountancy. Pari says these restaurants paid around RM2,000, but the college took huge cuts of up to RM1,200 every month.

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

“There are no facilities in that college, no studies – nothing… That place is only filled with agents, and they are cheating there. I saw lots of money there with them,” she says, using her hands to indicate stacks of money.

Pari and her husband realised there was no way they would get the university degree they had paid for, and they would have to work illegally to pay off their debts. They continued working in a restaurant, for over 12 hours a day.

“We felt very helpless at the time. We couldn’t do anything because we didn’t have any money to go anywhere else to study,” she says.

“Everything was gone. We were just ruined. Shattered, completely.”

When Pari’s father fell sick, she had no choice but to return to help care for him, while her husband stayed behind.

And that’s when she received the news.

“That day, he was at work, he called me and said: ‘Don’t cry. Don’t panic, please just listen carefully – I’ve been caught by the police’.

“I was crying, crying and crying,” she recalls, breaking down in tears. “I was very helpless. Nobody helped him. I called everyone, but nobody took my call.”

Her husband’s student visa had expired, and like Mahfuz, he paid an agent RM7,000 for a legal work permit. But while waiting for his papers to come through, he decided to forge a student card as a safety measure.

He was sentence to three months’ jail.

“I’m just waiting for him to come back, then we will make other plans,” she says. “I’m just hoping our visas aren’t blacklisted. Otherwise, all our money is gone.”

While we were in Dhaka, Pari was finally reunited with her husband, who served his time and was deported from Malaysia. Sadly, his passport was blacklisted for five years.

Also in Dhaka, we were able to catch up with Farid, one of the first student trafficking victims we interviewed. He, too, was finally able to return home after a year of working illegally in degrading conditions.

He is still desperate – and determined – to get a degree.

He is now learning web design and front-end development on his own so he can get an entry-level job, save enough money, and apply for university again – without an agent, this time.

“I know it’s a very long process (to get a degree), but I have to do it. I have to finish my studies any way I can, and I have to find a good job. This is my challenge. And I am doing well here to complete my challenge.”

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MORE FEATURE STORIES

The student trafficking trade

A network of deceit and exploitation that robs Bangladeshi college students of their money and education.

A night in a kongsi

R.AGE journalists spent a night in makeshift housing for construction workers, many of them victims of student trafficking.

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