PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - They are sold a dream: of a ticket to study and work in a foreign country, but after spending their family's entire savings, they are caught in the harsh reality of being trafficked and trapped in a constant cycle of exploitation and extortion.
Thousands of young Bangladeshis have been trafficked to Malaysia through obscure private colleges and their unscrupulous "agents".
Some pay over RM20,000 (S$6,338), equivalent to three years' wages in Bangladesh, for the agents to secure student visas and admission into these bogus colleges.
But that is just the beginning of the exploitation.
When they arrive in Malaysia, the victims realise the colleges do not offer any real classes, they cannot work under student visas, and there are often additional "fees" to be paid.
Many have no choice but to work illegally under inhumane conditions, creating a cycle of exploitation where they have to earn enough to repay their debts and buy a ticket home, or pay the agents again to renew their student visas so they can work another year.
"I can't go home, because my family spent all their money on the agent fees," said one victim, 24, whose father has suffered two strokes. "Now I need to work here to pay for my father's medicine."
The Star newspaper's R.AGE team uncovered these trafficking rings through a series of undercover investigations, all featured in its new video series, Student/Trafficked.
The team met up with agents while posing as factory managers looking for cheap labour, infiltrated the colleges, and followed the trail all the way to Dhaka, Bangladesh.
One agent told a journalist from The Star he works for a "Datuk" who owns a college in Kuala Lumpur, and that he has trafficked over 8,000 Bangladeshi students to Malaysia.
"Bangladeshi students are easy and quick money," said the agent, who is Nepali. "Bring in 200 or 300 of them, then distribute them (among the colleges), then you'll make your money."
Many of these victims live and work not far from the glittering lights of the Klang Valley's major towns, hidden and suffering.
"Our living conditions here are worse than the garbage dumps in the slums of Dhaka," said one victim, now a construction worker living in a makeshift ghetto in Cyberjaya.
His family had to take a loan to pay for his "studies" in Malaysia, for which they pay 21,000 taka (S$353) a month in instalments.
He now earns around RM1,500 a month.
"In my college, there were around 200 to 250 Bangladeshi students, but only 30 to 35 have renewed their visas (to continue studying). Where the rest are, we don't know," he said.
During the course of its investigation, R.AGE met more than 30 student trafficking victims, and found almost 30 colleges that showed signs of having worked with student traffickers.
When a R.AGE journalist posing as a prospective student went to one of these colleges, an employee quietly warned him against signing up.
"If our own people (Malaysians) come, I'll tell them not to study here," she said. "Look around, the whole place is empty! I wouldn't want any Malaysian students stuck here."
An earlier report by The Star revealed a large number of foreign students arriving through dubious colleges in 2013.
The Ministry of Higher Education revoked the international student licence of four such institutions in 2015.
Since then, a further 26 institutions have had their licences revoked or not renewed.
Though many of these colleges can no longer enrol international students, they continue to operate by channelling students to other affiliated colleges.
"We do have something like a collaboration, a group of companies," said the Nepali agent. "We have a language centre and four colleges, all are like 'joint-venture' companies."
He also claimed that he enrolled 3,000 Bangladeshi students at one of these colleges, but R.AGE found its campus to be nearly deserted.
"I came here to study. Only to study. But now, my dream is dashed," said one victim.