Chum niek commune, Kroch Chhmar district, Kompong Cham province – La Vyo Yas, 25, looks at her hands as she lists her reasons for illegally migrating to Malaysia: Good working conditions, a generous salary and a chance to live in a country where others share her Muslim faith.
She begged and borrowed $350 to pay a smuggler for her passport, visa and travel fees, expecting she could earn it back in a little more than a month. In November 2003, she piled onto a bus with a group of other Cham Cambodians—nine women and seven men—for the long trip through Thailand and into Malaysia.
But once she arrived, her dreams of wealth turned into a two-year-long nightmare, she recalled in a recent interview.
“I heard the Malaysians respect the same religion—that is why I wanted to work in Malaysia,” she said. “When I arrived in Malaysia with other women and men, the trafficker disappeared. I could not find a job for a long time. I had only a 30-day [tourist] visa. After 30 days, I had to sleep in the jungle with other Cambodian girls because we were afraid police could arrest us.”
She finally found a job on a bean farm, laboring hard and earning less than $2 per day. She, and the many other Chams she says were hidden in the jungle with her, dared not leave their hiding places at night, under constant fear of arrest or abduction.
“Some girls who stayed in the jungle and went to get their salaries at night never came back,” she recalled, adding that she was uncertain where in Malaysia she had been living.
Finally, Ly Vyo Yas found a factory job, producing electronic mobile phone parts—but she never saw a paycheck.
In what victims said is a common ploy in Malaysia’s factories, she and other illegal workers were reported to police and arrested in a raid on the factory shortly before her first payday.
She spent the next seven months in a detention camp in Malaysia’s Kachang province, with more than 150 Chams and hundreds of other illegal immigrants all crowded into one large room.
“It was very hard for me to sleep in the prison,” Ly Vyo Yas recalled. “There was not enough space for us to sleep or lie down. We all had to pile our legs on top of one another. And we could not eat enough: They provided only lunch and dinner.”
After the Cambodian ambassador eventually arrived to secure the release of Ly Vyo Yas and other Cambodian detainees, she was sent home—to a community that did not believe her tale of hardship. She said that the difficult life in her commune, where she works farming rice and making prahok, keeps local women dreaming of a better life abroad.
Though very little research has been done on migration by Chams, migration experts and those in the Cham community say that the flood of poor Cham Cambodians seeking employment in Islamic countries, particularly Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, is growing.
And while some do find their migrant experience—legal or not—to be exactly as promised, many report abuse and exploitation at the hand of employers or traffickers.
Lawyer Suon Visal, on a fact-finding mission to Malaysian detention centers last year, found that Chams constituted around 60 percent of Cambodians detained there—though they make up less than 5 percent of Cambodia’s population.
“Cambodian Muslims often have relatives in Malaysia, so it is easy for Malaysian people to persuade them to go there,” Suon Visal said. “They share the language, social traditions and customs.”
Chan Kanha, a project coordinator at the International Organization for Migration, said she had interviewed Chams who had been trafficked to Malaysia, both for sexual exploitation and for work, and to Saudi Arabia for domestic service—frequently in the homes of abusive landlords.
“The women told me that there were Cham men who were recruiting them, who are known by the people in the community,” Chan Kanha said. “They don’t tell them about culture shock or different traditions. They say, ‘We are both Muslim, we can help each other.’”
Cambodia’s top Islamic religious leader, Mufti Sos Kimri, said that of the more than 500,000 Chams scattered throughout Cambodia, a large number had spent time in Malaysia, though he could not say how many.
“There are hundreds of Cham women and men who left Cambodia to work in Malaysia, but we do not have statistics because some left for work through a company in Phnom Penh, and some others went to work via their relatives or ringleaders,” Sos Kimri said.
CPP Parliamentarian and Islamic leader Sman Teath said that at least 2,000 Chams had gone to Malaysia through authorized labor firms—but information about those who slipped over the border illegally or who were trafficked to Saudi Arabia remains scarce.
But, he said, families of Cham women who went to Malaysia and Saudi Arabia had submitted complaints to him in the past. In particular, they reported that Saudi landlords stabbed their Cham housemaids, beat them, verbally abused them or locked them in their rooms.
“I sometimes received complaints from the mothers of those women [in Saudi Arabia.] The women reported to their parents that their bosses used knives to beat them, or provided them not enough for food,” Sman Teath said.
But in Malaysia, the dangers may be just as grave—including forced prostitution and similar abuse, Suon Visal said.
According to his interviews, traffickers both Cambodian and Malaysian worked in concert to move Cham women, many of whom first suffered sexual exploitation and then found themselves detained for an average of eight months in Malaysia detention camps.
“In some cases, they appeared in court and the judge put them in jail for illegal immigration for three months, but they kept them for eight months or a year,” he said. “Some the government sends back. Others, detainees are expected to pay for themselves, which they do not always have money to do. So, many are not released because they don’t have the money to pay for their fare home.”
He and others said that the Cambodian Embassy in Malaysia has only five staff members—not nearly enough to deal with the flow of migrants into the country and its detention camps.
“When the people go down there, if they have problems, no one can help them,” Suon Visal said, comparing Cambodia’s poor facilities to those of Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia which all have large numbers of migrant workers in Malaysia and special offices to assist them.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Huy Kanthoul Vora said that contact with Malaysia was the responsibility of Secretary of State Long Visalo, who declined to comment for this story.
Hisham Megat Tajudin, first secretary at the Malaysian Embassy, said Malaysia has no problem with people being legally recruited in Cambodia to work there.
“For one thing it provides an avenue for employment, for earning income, and to save money and remit money to families here in Cambodia,” he said.
He added that 1,364 visas were issued for Cambodian workers in 2005, and 1,732 were issued for maids.
“Usually their contract is for two years,” he said. “Most tend to extend their contracts after they expire.”
Malaysian officials have read a lot about cases where Cambodians are alleged to have been trafficked to Malaysia or exploited there, but do not have any official record of any such cases, he said.
“All the allegations were found to be false, fabricated,” he said, though he added that all over the world people enter countries illegally to work and then have fewer rights.
“It happens everywhere, even in the US with Mexican workers,” he said.
If people enter Malaysia illegally and are then arrested, they can expect to be detained, he said, adding that it takes time to investigate their cases.
In detention, laborers who entered the country illegally sometimes then claim that they were tricked into coming to the country rather than coming of their own volition. “People make up stories,” he said.
Despite the hardships Chams often undergo in Malaysia, they continue to leave for the country by droves, Chum Niek commune chief Slah Mat said.
Slah Mat, who is also the local mufti, said that in his commune, where more than half the families are Muslim, it has been hard to keep track of the hordes leaving for and returning from Malaysia each year, since they first began migrating around five years ago.
He knows that in 2005, 379 people left officially, with a government authorized labor firm.
But, he added, “The majority of the people who went to work in Malaysia [went] through their relatives because they have no documents to work in the factories. But I never receive any official information to do with trafficking.”
Ly Mari, 25, tells a different tale of work in Malaysia. Also a Cham woman from Kompong Cham, she sits in her parents’ basic, one-room wooden home in Village 49, Chub Commune, Tbong Khmum district, bouncing her infant daughter and recalling the spotless apartment she enjoyed in Kuala Lumpur.
“The culture is similar [there], but the food and living conditions were very different—they were much better,” she says with a smile.
She spent three years working at a Chinese-owned electronics factory in Malaysia, after a smuggler from a neighboring village promised her a salary of $250 per month. She and 100 other Chams, all with only tourist visas, piled into a convoy of pickup trucks in 2001, bound for Malaysia.
“The ringleader told me I would get a high salary and a job in a factory—and when I arrived I really did work in a factory, and I also got the high salary,” she said. “It was good luck for me.”
She described her working conditions at the Kuala Lumpur factory as far better than at home, in a village where the main employment opportunity is back-breaking, low-paying labor on a nearby rubber plantation.
Ly Mari said she repatriated only in order to have her child with her parents’ help, but now she is aching to return.
When she does, she will again look to the local “ringleader” for help—a woman from neighboring Village 51.
Sman Puth, Village 51 Islamic Association leader, said proudly that the ringleader is his niece, and that she has helped each of his daughters find work in Malaysia. He said the women each earn about $250 per month, and never fail to send $200 home monthly between them.
“My three daughters are now in Malaysia and I never hear any complaints from them. They only talk about the good working conditions there,” Sman Puth said. “My niece has brought around 200 people—only Cambodian Muslim men and women. The Khmer Islam and the Malaysians are very similar…so it is comfortable for the Khmer Islam to live there.”
But Ly Vyo Yas and others who do not have comparable experiences express frustration and sorrow that their friends and neighbors do not heed their warnings.
“When I returned back home,” Ly Vyo Yas said, “I spoke out to the other Cham women, so they would understand about the bad conditions working there. But the majority did not believe me.”
(Additional reporting by William Shaw)