SEOUL (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - An estimated 5,000 Malaysians are working and staying illegally in South Korea, with the less fortunate ones forced to live like refugees and always on the run from the authorities.
Lured by job advertisements that claimed they could make money hand over fist in the land of K-pop and Descendants of the Sun, they paid recruitment agents thousands of ringgit in fees and entered the country on tourist visas.
Unfortunately, many of them have been left in dire straits after finding out that reality did not match up with the promises.
Star Media Group's Bahasa Malaysia news portal mStar Online sent a team to South Korea to look into their plight and found many of these Malaysians stranded and destitute.
These 5,000, based on figures that volunteer aid workers pieced together from Malaysians and recruitment agents, are part of an estimated 251,000 illegal foreign workers in the country as reported by The Korea Herald.
Their problems, first highlighted by the portal in a series of special reports in association with The Korea Herald in January, ranged from suffering permanent disability after workplace accidents to being left broke and homeless when they were fired by their employers.
Among the locations the team visited were Itaewon in the central region and Daeso and Muguk in Eumseoung district, about 80km from Seoul.
A Malaysian who wanted to be known only as Farhan said he and two of his friends have been homeless for more than two months since they were fired without pay after working at a seaweed processing company for just one week.
"I was fired because I came down with fever a week after starting work. We have to rely on our friends for food," he said, adding that sometimes they only had biscuits to eat.
The 24-year-old said that on weekends, they would sleep at the Seoul Central Mosque, while on weekdays, they would stay at a friend's house.
Visiting the mosque, the mStar Online team found several bags in the corridors, believed to belong to the foreign workers who sleep there.
Another Malaysian, who did not want to be named, said she had to live in one house with 18 others.
The woman, who works on an onion and sweet potato farm, said the house is so overcrowded that some of them have to sleep in front of the toilet or on the kitchen floor.
She and her housemates said there had been cases of Malaysians being physically abused if they did not work fast enough.
Their story was echoed by others the team interviewed, as well as those who came forward in the earlier reports in January, and because of their illegal status, they are often exploited, made to work long hours without rest and barred from talking to their colleagues.
The risk of accidents is also great because they are seldom given briefings or safety equipment and protective gear.
After such hardship, their labour sometimes even goes unrewarded because of employers who, taking advantage of their workers' illegal status, hold back their pay in the belief that they would not dare report it to the authorities.
As a result, many suffer in silence for fear of being detained by the authorities, and are ignorant of their rights as workers.
Winter in South Korea will come to an end later this month. Without money, shelter or a way home, these stranded Malaysians can only wait it out, and hope for new job opportunities that will be available in the spring.