Hundreds of Lao migrant fishermen are stranded in Malaysia after the Lao Embassy in Kuala Lumpur took control of their return travel plans to arrange pricier flights, which had already been complicated by coronavirus restrictions, the fishermen told RFA.
Drawn by the prospect of well-paid work at sea, around 700 Lao migrants traveled overland through Thailand to Pahang state on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, entering Malaysia on tourist visas, one of the men said.
“The company or the owner of the fishing boats made all the paperwork for us including work permits and contracts, so we are all legal workers in Malaysia,” the fisherman told RFA’s Lao Service Monday on condition of anonymity.
But coronavirus threw a wrench in their plans to return home when fishing season ended in November.
After an inexpensive bus trip back to Laos through Thailand became impossible when borders between Malaysia and Thailand closed, about 530 of the fishermen negotiated passage to Laos from Pahang with V Travel, a Malaysian tour company.
The 1,700 ringgit (U.S. $417) ticket included the cost of COVID-19 testing, bus fare and airfare and would have gotten them home before the end of November.
When V Travel visited the Lao Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to complete paperwork, however, the embassy told the tour company that it would handle travel arrangements – and each fisherman would now have to pay 2,100 ringgit ($515) to the embassy to be on one of two chartered flights.
They were told the two chartered flights would fly back to Laos before the end of November, but the embassy told them that the flights were postponed first to Dec. 3 and 4, then Dec. 12.
“The embassy told us that we would fly back at the end of November,” a second fisherman, who declined to be named, told RFA.
“We can’t wait any longer. The flights have been postponed three times. We can’t count on the embassy anymore,” the second fisherman said.
A third fisherman told RFA, “On December 3, we received a notice from the embassy stating that the flights were rescheduled for December 11 and 12. The reason is because incoming chartered flights from infected countries were suspended by Laos from December 1.”
“We accepted the fee increase because fishing season is over, and our contracts have expired. We can’t stay here doing nothing in Malaysia when living expenses are so high here,” the third fisherman said.
With expenses piling up and no money coming in, hundreds of the fishermen illegally entered Thailand in hopes of taking the overland route. On Tuesday, a group of about 20 of them were arrested in Thailand’s southern Songkhla province.
As of Tuesday, 463 remain in Malaysia and are still waiting for the flights.
The Lao Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday said that flights chartered for the end of November were postponed because the Lao Prime Minister’s Office suspended incoming flights.
“The embassy made a second request to the Lao National Taskforce Committee for Covid-10 Control and Prevention to reschedule the flights, one on December 12 and the other on December 17, 2020. Now, the request is being considered by the taskforce. So, please wait,” the statement said.