Student/Trafficked: Desperate In Dhaka
A team of journalists spend over a year undercover to investigate a new breed of human trafficker, one which uses a cross-border network of bogus colleges to exploit its victims.
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 curb of one of 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 part of a new kind of human trafficking.
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.
The reality, however, is that their young victims will arrive in Kuala Lumpur to find no real college waiting for them - most are just empty classrooms, a front for their real business.
It’s a business that exploits young men and women desperate for higher education, for what we’re told is millions of dollars in profit. It spreads beyond Malaysia and Bangladesh, with stories of students being trafficked even to the UK, and from countries like India, Nepal, Bhutan, Nigeria, and China. But between Malaysia and Bangladesh, the numbers are shocking.
In 2015 and 2016, nearly 40,000 Bangladeshis came to Malaysia on student visas, making them by far the largest international student population in the country, triple the next largest group. And based on our findings, nearly all of them are victims of trafficking or some form of exploitation.
The most common lie the agents tell is that college students holding a student visa can work part-time in Malaysia with few restrictions. That’s the crux of the scam.
In Malaysia, dozens of victims we spoke to said the promise of part-time work 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.
But the truth is, Malaysia has strict rules on part-time work for international students, making any consistent employment almost impossible.
Stuck in a sham college and saddled with a mountain of debt, these would-be college students have little choice but to work illegally as cheap labour (often in dangerous construction sites), all while facing a seemingly unending cycle of exploitation.
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 charged by the agent.
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 barely offered any classes. They withheld his passport and extorted him for more money. There was no job, no prestigious degree. Mahfuz was left to rot.
With his family now heavily in debt, Mahfuz had little choice but to find a job. He started working illegally at construction sites so he could send some money home. And just like that, four years 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 speaks in a determined voice about getting his life back on track by applying for a legitimate work visa, and earning enough money to pay his debts and put this all behind him.
But when we ask about his parents back home, his voice suddenly changes.
“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.”
But it seems the heartache is far from over for Mahfuz.
Student visas in Malaysia have to be renewed annually, so after a year is up, most victims are forced to renew their visas to continue working off their debt - and they often have to pay another agent 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 try a different option, paying another “visa agent” RM7,000 to get a legitimate work visa (he earns less than RM18,000 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.
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.”
Given that each student pays between RM15,000 and RM20,000 to these agents, even if this man received only 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 Home Ministry license (for recruiting international students), 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.”
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 their trail to Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“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.”
Many might find Sabil’s sentiments strange, 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.
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 as college students by the student tags around their necks.
In a 2012 British Council report, Bangladesh’s tertiary enrollment was forecast to grow by 700,000 over the next decade, making it one of the 10 countries with the fastest growing tertiary education sectors worldwide. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough university places to cope with this growth.
“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 likely 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?”
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 seeing out his current student visa, and reapplying for a new visa the following year.
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, addressing the common perception among Malaysians that most Bangladeshis knowingly flout visa rules so they can work in Malaysia.
“But now, my dream has fallen down. Everything I thought before now is broken.”
The Book Market
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.
After months of undercover work in Malaysia, speaking to dozens of victims and traffickers, and investigating 28 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 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.
If caught working outside these narrow guidelines, students face up to five years imprisonment, RM10,000 in fines, and even whipping. Worse, they would be deported at the end of the sentence, and their passports blacklisted, potentially barring them from seeking education in other countries.
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, but found their colleges more interested in signing them up for “internships” at restaurants and retail outlets.
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.
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.
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.
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 illustrate 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 to continue working.
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.
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.”
* R.AGE’s Student/Trafficked investigations started in 2016, when we first heard of colleges being used to scam and exploit aspiring university students from Bangladesh. After a documentary campaign that lasted nearly two years, and numerous discussions with government enforcement agencies, there still is no solution being offered to the tens of thousands of victims who continue to live here in conditions akin to modern-day slavery. Help push for change by reporting cases on our interactive map to show the movement of student traffickers around the world, and in signing a petition calling for action against these trafficking syndicates.