In Malaysia we found ourselves filming in dark alleys, secret apartments, on the edge of rubbish dumps, in patches of jungle outside the city, and, once, in a slum constructed on stilts over the sea. Much of the documentary (Malaysia: Refugees for Sale) had to be shot under cover of darkness, even though we might be in the shadow of the twin Petronas Towers in downtown Kuala Lumpur. One midnight, when we had nowhere to film on the edge of a busy highway, a kind Sikh priest took pity on us and invited us into his empty temple to interview a group of men.
The reason for all this secrecy was that the stakes were so high for our subjects - Burmese refugees and immigrants who had entered Malaysia illegally. They feared that to be noticed talking to western journalists would expose them to the risk of arrest by the authorities, imprisonment and even a bloody flogging with the ‘rotan’ cane.
There are hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees in Malaysia, but Kuala Lumpur has not signed up to international treaties that recognise their right to asylum here.
We spoke to Burmese refugees who had even worse stories to tell. They told us that Malaysian immigration officials had sold them to gangsters on the Thailand border. Here they were ordered to pay ransoms to secure their freedom and a route back to Kuala Lumpur. Refugees who cannot pay are allegedly sold to fishing boats, brothels or factories - and we met survivors of these ordeals.
It was a testimony to their extreme bravery that most of the refugees wanted to show their faces on camera. Having fled the brutal military regime of Burma, they were outraged at what they had been forced to suffer in Malaysia. They wanted the world to know about it.
As the stories we heard from these refugees piled up, it took a toll on the crew. Our interpreter burst into tears as he translated the testimony of one woman, Rahima, who told how a gangster had suffocated her baby son because he would not stop crying.
It is very hard for me talking about this,’ said a young Burmese man while asking for a pause in filming. ‘I do not want to have to remember what happened to me.’ The man had been sold into slavery on a fishing trawler, where he said he saw the bodies of other trafficked slaves pulled up in the prawn nets.
After all that, it was very hard to return to our comfortable Kuala Lumpur hotel with its menu of tasty dishes – including prawns.
In another interview, a father and son showed us pictures of four family members who had disappeared in the hands of Thai traffickers. The man and boy were so scared of the same thing happening to them that they had given up the search for their loved ones and dared not venture out of the Burmese ghetto in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia is a modern democracy with an economy growing so fast that the Asian country is about to enter the G20 group of rich nations. For me, this made the testimonies of the Burmese refugees we spoke to even more shocking.
NB: The Malaysian Immigration Department said it had not received any evidence of trafficking that has led to a prosecution.