Human traffickers and people smugglers—the scourge of South-east Asia—are shifting course as the success of a tripartite effort by Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia has limited the trade in people and improved tactics for combating the crime (in Kuala Lumpur, at least).
However, Bangkok is emerging as a first destination point for human trafficking in South-east Asia, replacing Malaysia's capital, where the arrest of corrupt customs officials has forced self-appointed agents to scout out a fresh point of entry for the region.
In Malaysia in recent years, a generous three months, no-questions-asked visa on arrival at KL International Airport for most countries had made it an ideal destination for agents and their unfortunate cargo from Central Asia and the Middle East. Furthermore, the like-minded cultures and ethnic groups in Malaysia have provided the additional allure of a local support network for the agents.
Malaysia’s great strength of ethnic diversity was for years manipulated and mauled by parasites seeking to turn a quick buck from people escaping human rights abuses at home or the deplorable conditions in refugee camps, or who’d been conned into accepting bogus work contracts.
But once the crackdown in Malaysia did begin, authorities reacted with region-wide action against the smugglers. This was highlighted by the arrest of seven immigration officers for human trafficking in mid-October that prompted a re-think among agents.
Sources working closely with the authorities say Thailand first emerged as the new staging post into South-east Asia shortly after the arrests. On arrival at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, agents and refugees are driven south, where they sneak across the porous Malaysian border and catch the train to Kuala Lumpur. Then it’s on to suburbs like Chow Kit, where they are picked-up by local agents and placed in safe houses until the next leg of the journey is arranged.
Sri Lankan, Afghan and Pakistani refugees hope to eventually land safely in Australia, Japan or even South Korea where they always intended to lodge a claim for political asylum. The others, who include Indians, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and some Cambodians, have often signed up for jobs that never existed. Many of the women and young girls are therefore destined for brothels or sweatshops in the region’s major cities, while the men get bullied into rural plantation work.
Such work earns a pittance (and sometimes nothing at all). Another recently developed practice occurs on the more remote plantations where men are often employed on six-month contracts doing menial labor with payment withheld until their final day on the job.
About a week before their term expires, a plantation owner takes out his mobile and calls the police to report that illegal migrants have been sighted in the area. His workers are rounded up and deported without a cent ever being paid.