A Lao rubber plantation worker who was jailed for a year in Malaysia and was presumed dead by relatives returned home to his family in Laos’ Attapeu province this week.
Aloun Phommalath, 24, worked on plantations in Malaysia for four years before he was arrested on drug charges in August 2021.
He was released in late 2022, but relatives in Attapeu’s Sanamxay district didn’t know how to contact him. Phommalath lost his phone in jail and didn’t remember his family’s phone number.
Family members told Radio Free Asia that they worried that the lack of contact meant he had died.
But Phommalath eventually sent a letter to them through a co-worker who was on his way back to Laos. His family then sent a text message to RFA asking for assistance in bringing him home.
An RFA reporter then emailed the Lao Embassy in Malaysia alerting them to Phommalath’s situation. Phommalath returned to Laos on Wednesday.
“We are so happy. Nothing compares. It’s like he’s born again,” his brother said. “I never dreamed that he would return home after we lost contact with him for so long.”
One of Phommalath’s sisters said she ran toward the airplane after it landed and wheeled to the terminal.
“All relatives came to visit when he returned home,” another sister said. “All of them asked why he was so fat and dark. They have been waiting for him to come home for a long time.”
An official from the Lao Embassy told RFA that Phommalath’s criminal case was related to the drug “Kratom,” an herbal substance that can produce opioid- and stimulant-like effects. He was jailed for one year, the official said.
The Lao Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare estimated last year that about 2,000 Laotians had traveled illegally to Malaysia for jobs in the fishing industry.
During the pandemic, 700 Lao migrants returned home from Malaysia, but most eventually went back once economic conditions in Laos worsened due in part to high inflation, the ministry said.
Though the pay is sometimes better there than what they could earn in Laos, illegal migrants are often exploited by their employers, a Lao fisherman who has been working in Malaysia’s Pahang state told RFA on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
To ensure their rights are protected, the Lao government is working on finding ways for more migrants to go to Malaysia legally.
Despite the risks, Malaysia is attractive to migrants because it is a relatively easy country to work in, the fisherman said.
“The main reason so many choose to come here is because we don’t have money. Most of us don’t even have enough to make a passport,” he said.
Translated by Sidney Khotpanya. Edited by Matt Reed.