LAST Wednesday, The Star ran a front page story on Malaysians who were basically kidnapped and trafficked to work overseas as scammers.
I’ve done a little bit of work within civil society on these cases, and was glad to see the extra coverage.
I can’t imagine there ever being “too much” coverage on this particular issue, after learning about what happens in these cases, and what these kidnapped Malaysians suffer.
If you talk to those involved, you will hear and sometimes see stories of torture, prolonged imprisonment, and modern slavery.
You will be shown videos of people being beaten, see photos of bruises and other scars, and told nightmarish stories.
The reason why there can never be enough coverage is twofold.
Firstly, we have a duty to do everything we can to bring these kidnapped Malaysians home.
Secondly, especially given how difficult it is to bring people back once they’ve been taken, we must redouble our efforts to prevent Malaysians from being duped and kidnapped.
Having worked on a little research, the standard modus operandi tends to go roughly along the following lines:
Human traffickers target naive, unaware, or desperate individuals and offer them higher paying jobs overseas.
Often times, the salaries offered are realistic in nature, and nothing unbelievably extravagant. Figures that range from between RM5,000 and RM9,000 are pretty common, and already represent a huge jump in income for the types of individuals targeted.
The traffickers have various methods of making first contact, including social media like Facebook, job ads, friends of friends, and even love scams through dating apps and the like.
Motivated by huge bounties they get for “delivering” victims, the traffickers slowly and surely entice the victims with many tales.
Often times, the victims think they are going to get jobs in places like Dubai, Singapore or Thailand. Once they finally pack up and cross our borders, their fates essentially become entirely in the hands of the traffickers, who have little trouble moving them around as they wish.
Sometimes they are actually flown at first to places like Dubai and Singapore, and maybe even stay there for a while. But sooner or later, they end up in countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, or Laos.
Most of the cases I got familiar with involved ending up in a place called KK Gardens in Myanmar, near the border town of Mae Sot in Thailand.
The situation in Myanmar is particularly conducive to the kinds of scamming operations based in places like KK Garden because of the degree of lawlessness. In many ways, sizeable regions in Myanmar are run by warlords, where there is no effective rule of law – think more cowboy towns where there is only the law of the jungle.
It is the perfect base of operations for criminal organisations involved in scamming that can almost guarantee huge financial income, and need only a place to operate without being hassled by authorities.
The money generated from these scamming activities are more than enough to pay whatever local warlord a cut that guarantees them a stable place to operate from.
Once victims are brought to such places, it becomes like a prison. The heavily armed criminals reign supreme, as there is no other local authority. The place is run exactly like a prison, with no freedom of movement in and out of the walled compounds.
Within those lawless walls, the criminals can treat their victims any way they want – which typically means treating them as nothing more than money generating livestock.
They are taught the basics of scamming operations, and given quotas to meet. If you’ve ever gotten a strange call in the middle of the day from someone claiming to be from a big bank or the income tax department, there’s a good chance the human on the other side of the line was calling from a place like KK Gardens.
You can imagine what happens when victims do not meet their quotas. There is nothing and no one to stop the criminals from using whatever nefarious means necessary to ‘motivate’ the victims to work harder.
Victims who are “only” made to suffer things like more restrictive imprisonment, left in the cold, or denied food are the “lucky” ones. The less lucky ones may be beaten and physically tortured. In the very worst cases, where an individual has proven to be completely “worthless” to the criminals, there have even been reports of victims being sold off and killed for organ harvesting.
Thinking of the hundreds of Malaysians (that we know of) languishing in these conditions makes the blood boil. It is enough to make one wish we could just send it troops to liberate the place.
Obviously, that is a less than practical solution. Efforts to bring home such Malaysians have been ongoing for years, with varying degrees of success.
One of the more prominent figures involved in such efforts is Teruntum assemblyperson and Pahang exco member Sim Chon Siang, who has been working over a long time with a Thailand-based Malaysian businessman to make arrangements to secure releases.
The methods used are seen by some to be complex and possibly controversial, but most parents will do anything and pay any price to bring their children back, and results are what matter the most.
Another NGO called the Malaysian Humanitarian Organisation has also been a long time presence working on this issue.
It is probably true that not every single Malaysian abroad involved in these criminal activities is someone that has been kidnapped. There has been talk that some of the highest ranking individuals in the criminal organisations are themselves Malaysian, as are some of the people recruiting victims in Malaysia.
That said, it would be very counterproductive to simply throw up our hands and start thinking that many of the people there are there voluntarily, or that the problem is simply too complex to solve.
The families of the victims here are suffering greatly, and the victims themselves are suffering even more – trapped and tortured, with little hope of escape.
The Malaysian government, with immense resources at its disposal, can do so much more to support these victim’s families, push ever harder to secure the release of victims, stop traffickers from successfully recruiting more victims, and work with other countries to shut down these organisations once and for all.
As for the rest of us, we need to spread the word, and keep the pressure up. We need to remind everyone we know that the vast majority of these overseas job offers are not legitimate, and spread education on how to differentiate between real and (the majority) fake overseas job offers.
We need to spread the word, far and wide, to Malaysians of all communities and backgrounds: Don’t fall for scams, and don’t ever let yourself be kidnapped to become a scammer.
Nathaniel Tan is a strategic communications consultant who also works with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are solely the writer’s own.