It was at the Kochi airport that they got the first hint, something’s not right. They were a group of 19 then, 18 of them from Anchuthengu and one from Kollam, all going to try their luck in Malaysia, trusting one man’s word. At the airport, they realised the visa they held were visiting visas, not work visas. But they left that day – October 24, 2018 – still hoping life would change for the better. It didn’t. It was a trap, they were cheated – victims of the familiar visa fraud story that Kerala has seen quite a bit of through the decades. After two and a half months, with the help of the Indian embassy in Malaysia, NORKA (The Non Resident Keralites Affairs Department of Kerala government) and some kind hearts on the way, the 19 men have come back home to Kerala.
“We are all fishermen. And when we can’t go fishing, we ride auto rickshaws for an income,” says Justin, one of the 19 men, when they came to the NORKA Roots office in Thiruvananthapuram and told the media their story.
They heard the story of a young man from among them – someone called Sanal – make it big in Malaysia, and through him, got the contact of Lal, who claimed to be from an agency that could give them work abroad. Eighteen of them came together from Anchuthengu, each raising the Rs 75,000 asked of them. Soman from Kollam too joined their group, led there by Lal. “We were promised jobs that would earn us 90 ringgits a day. In addition to the 75,000 rupees, we also carried 600 ringgits with us. At the Malaysian airport we were asked to give 300 ringgits to the agency,” Justin says. Prithas, standing near him says, the agency was called the Meghala Enterprises.
From the Kuala Lumpur airport, all 19 men were taken 420 kilometres away to a place called Johor, where they were lodged in a hostel-like setup. They could do nothing there. “If we wanted food, we had to make it,” Justin says. One day six of them were taken to a job at a ‘plastic company’. But it was a job with no rest, when for 12 hours they had to work without break.
Then they heard stories from others lodged there – men from Tamil Nadu who had been lured by similar promises. Stories about getting beaten up, exploited and more. The men from Kerala realised they had to go back soon. They contacted families back at home, who went to the Chief Minister’s office and to NORKA.
Johnson, another man from the group reminds Justin to talk of a man called Manu. “We were told we had to somehow reach the Indian Embassy, but we were 420 km away. That’s when a man, in the form of an angel, came to rescue us. He is an auto rickshaw driver called Manu, from Tamil Nadu. He first took us to his home and then to the Embassy. Srijith sir, from a Malayali association there, was also really helpful,” Justin says.
The problem was their visiting visas had expired – they had been trapped in that building for 33 days. And they had to pay fines – which means more money which they didn’t have. But somehow this was arranged. A NORKA official explains to them it had become illegal migration, and they should understand that visiting visas cannot be converted to work visas.
NORKA Roots CEO Harikrishnan Namboothiri said that it’s come to their notice that people from Kerala going abroad suffer from different kinds of exploitation. Another official reminded the 19 men that only those agencies which are recognised by the Ministry of External Affairs should be trusted.
Justin tells the media persons who speak to him that no one should go to Malaysia trusting agencies like these. “I am 47 years old. I was just trying one last chance to make some money. But it was a mistake. At least when we came back, others who were planning to go after us, decided not to. So our experience has helped someone.”