Human trafficking – an analysis of issues

Survivors of human trafficking are entitled to assistance, protection and access to justice regardless of their residence status or whether perpetrators are identified and prosecuted.

By James Nayagam in Free Malaysia Today

The US State Department has just released the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report placing Malaysia on the Tier 2 Watch List. This is the second consecutive year Malaysia is being placed on this tier. The Tier 2 Watch List concerns countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.

The following also applies:

  • The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing;
  • There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or
  • The determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.

As with previous reports, this year’s again identified Malaysia as a “destination and, to a lesser extent, a source and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and women and children subjected to sex trafficking”, and that “some foreign migrant workers on agricultural and palm oil plantations, at construction sites, in the electronics industry, and in homes as domestic workers are subjected to practices indicative of forced labour, such as restricted movement, wage fraud, contract violations, passport confiscation, and imposition of significant debts by recruitment agents or employers.
We, as Malaysians must ask as to how Malaysia fares in light of the report and to take note of the areas we are lacking in that need for immediate action.

In May 2015, mass graves were found in Wang Kelian in Perlis. Malaysian police found human skeletons – all believed to be victims of human trafficking along the Thai border in the northern Malaysian state of Perlis.

The heavily forested Thai-Malaysia border has been a transfer point for smugglers transporting people to Southeast Asia by boat from Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The individuals were often held for ransom in squalid conditions and, according to some witness accounts, were subjected to torture and starvation. Police uncovered the bodies near the Malaysian border with Thailand, close to where authorities found hundreds of bodies in illegal detention camps.

It was announced there were elements of corruption involving officers of enforcement agencies and that this had gone on for almost 15 years. Subsequently it was announced that the army would take over operations at the border.

To date no Malaysian or officers from the enforcement agencies concerned have been charged. It’s ‘business as usual’ for officers of enforcement agencies and in typical Malaysian fashion, the issue of the mass graves may likely be relegated to an issue of the past. There are testimonies of young girls tortured and gang raped, mothers brutally killed and starved to the point of death. The site however has been cleared of any evidence of their existence.

PROSECUTION: From 2010 to 2016, the most highlighted issue has been that of the extremely low numbers of human trafficking convictions. This is taking into account the extensive insider network implicating the involvement of staff of enforcement agencies involved in corrupt activities. In fact the number of convictions was reduced further to only three traffickers for forced labour and one for passport retention in 2014, a decrease from the nine traffickers the courts convicted in 2013. In 2015, out of 158 investigations, the government convicted seven traffickers — five for sex trafficking and two for labour trafficking — marking an insignificant increase from three traffickers convicted in 2014. The other issue of contention is the prolonged trial process in court, and the absence of fast-track trials for human trafficking cases. Among the reasons sighted were that investigations by enforcement agencies were weak thus making it difficult to prosecute.

NON-GOVERNMENT AGENCIES: Since 2007, there had been proposals to outsource the running of government shelters to non-government organisations. To date, this has not materialised, despite the numerous dialogues and workshops held. Instead non-government agencies are only allowed to conduct programmes for victims in government-run shelters.

VICTIMS: During the reporting period, the government collaborated with an international hotel chain to identify employment opportunities for trafficking victims and advertised the positions to more than 100 trafficking victims in government facilities. Nine responded but only four finally took up the offer. Since the process took such a long time, many victims may have lost interest. In 2011 a Client Services manual was developed as a guideline to provide trafficking victims in government shelters with quality care but this was never implemented.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

  1. To outsource the running of government-run shelters to a non-government organisation.
  2. That victims be provided with immediate health checks upon their arrival at shelters and to have a doctor regularly visiting the centre.
  3. That victims be informed of the status of their cases, and a special court established to expedite the resolution of cases pertaining to anti-trafficking in persons;
  4. That the government accede to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families;
  5. That the government accede to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees 1967 as part of its initiatives to underline the government’s seriousness in combating human trafficking and/or migrant smuggling.
  6. That the government implement the Client Service Management manual in all shelters.
  7. The survivors of human trafficking are entitled to assistance, protection and access to justice and remedies regardless of their residence status or whether perpetrators are identified, investigated or prosecuted.
  8. Indeed we as Malaysians must be sincere in our efforts to counter human trafficking and be a people of action rather than words. The cries of the victims, especially the children of the mass graves can still be heard and stirs our conscience to act.

(James Nayagam is Chairman of the Suriana Welfare Society. Originally published in the Free Malaysia Today. Republished with permission.)

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