Over 100 Lao fishermen stranded in Malaysia for several months after losing work amid fears over the spread of COVID-19 have returned home, flying in a chartered flight to an airport in Vientiane on Jan. 17, Lao sources say.
The 177 fishermen, the first to return from a larger group of 328, traveled from Malaysia’s Pahang state on an Air Asia flight chartered by the Oudomsin Company, a Lao travel firm, one of the returnees told RFA’s Lao Service on Jan. 18.
“We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Wattai Airport, where we were scanned, tested for COVID-19, and transported to a quarantine center in the suburbs of Vientiane,” RFA’s source said, with a second source saying that on arriving at the center, they were briefed on center rules.
“We are forbidden from taking pictures or video, or going live on Facebook to talk about what goes on here. We were also told that we’ll be kept in quarantine for at least 14 days,” he said.
A third returnee said the group had been made to pay for their transport home, saying that each had paid 2,050 Malaysian ringgit (U.S. $560) for airfare alone. “We also had to pay extra for COVID-19 testing at the airport and for the bus trip from the airport to the quarantine center,” he added.
“We were all happy to have come back to our families after waiting for more than two months in Malaysia, though,” the returning fisherman said.
Still waiting in Malaysia’s Pahang state, another fisherman told RFA that a total of 328 Lao fishermen had been waiting on Jan. 9 for flights back to Laos. “Then on Sunday, Jan. 17, the first chartered flight took 177 of us home,” he said.
“The remaining 151 are now waiting for the second flight, which is scheduled for Jan. 24, and more Lao fishermen may still be coming from other states to join our group,” he said.
Living in harsh conditions
Lao fishermen still waiting in Malaysia for flights home are now living in harsh conditions, sources told RFA.
“We’re running out of our savings, and we have no money to buy cigarette and sim cards for our phones and many other necessities,” he said.
“Our former employer brings us some rice and other food items every three to four days, but the food aid is not enough,” another fisherman said, adding, “We have to look elsewhere for extra food, and some of us are foraging for bamboo shoots and vegetables in the nearby forest.”
“Others rely on financial aid from their families back home,” he said.
According to earlier reports, up to 700 Lao fishermen in Malaysia were laid off from their jobs in early October amid an economic downturn in the country due to fears of the spread of COVID-19, but flights chartered to take them home were at first postpone and then canceled.
A group of 328 then arranged for flights on Air Asia while others decided to go home on their own, with around 100 later arrested for crossing illegally into Thailand and then deported back to Laos.
As of Jan. 20, at least 12 Lao fishermen have decided not to return home, but to stay in Malaysia, and have applied for work with another company which is helping them renew their visas and work permits, sources said.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Richard Finney.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.