PETALING JAYA • They are sold a dream of a ticket to study and work in a foreign country.
But after spending all their family savings, thousands of young men from Bangladesh are caught in the harsh reality of being trapped in exploitation and extortion in Malaysia.
By the time they realise it, they have been trafficked through obscure private colleges and unscrupulous "agents" in the Klang Valley area that surrounds Kuala Lumpur.
Some pay over RM20,000 (S$6,350) - equivalent to three years' wages in Bangladesh - for the agents to secure student visas and admission into 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 in inhumane conditions, creating a circle 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," a 24-year-old victim told investigative reporters from The Star's R.AGE unit. "Now I need to work here to pay for my father's medicine."
The journalists uncovered the trafficking rings through a series of undercover investigations. They met workers' agents while posing as factory managers looking for cheap labour, infiltrated the colleges, and followed the trail to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
One agent said 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 will make your money."
Many of these victims live and work not far from the glittering lights of the Klang Valley's 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, about an hour's drive south of Kuala Lumpur.
His family had to take a loan to pay for his "studies", for which they fork out 21,000 taka (S$350) a month in instalments. He now earns around RM1,500 a month.
In the course of its investigation, R.AGE met over 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. Look around, the whole place is empty! I wouldn't want any Malaysian students stuck here," she said.
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.
Higher Education Minister Idris Jusoh said he wants to take down these dubious colleges. "I want action. I want to put an end to this."
THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK