The sordid exploitation behind trafficking is not only morally unbecoming but is also a crime against humanity, says Syerleena Abdul Rashid.
Every year, on 20 June, the world celebrates Refugee Day – a day that commemorates the awareness of issues relating to the struggles and advocacy of refugee rights worldwide.
This year, on the same day, the United States government decided Malaysia was not living up to its promise to improve issues relating to human rights and downgraded our nation to ‘Tier 3’ status and subsequently, blacklisted Malaysia. Our country now joins the ranks of North Korea, Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gambia – a membership to a club no one desires and no one can be proud of.
The recent demotion also means that our country could face possible sanctions at a time when we really need robust policies to help drive our economy because at present, we are aware of how unhealthy things are, even if we are being told otherwise. In addition to the spate of negative press already highlighted in the international media, this recent testimony solidifies Malaysia as a human rights outcast, which is a huge embarrassment to everyone living on this soil and a great insult to the forefathers who created the Federation.
While most Malaysians appear to be apathetic about socio-political issues, the issue of upholding the basic values of humanism is extremely important as this can influence the outcome of our nation – whether we are able to develop ourselves and compete in an increasingly globalized world or if we are to regress and embrace tribalism as a way of living while our economy lies in ruins.
A majority of Malaysians still mistakenly equate human trafficking to prostitution, amongst other things, and this misconception was brought to light during a sex trafficking seminar held in Penang, earlier this year. Hence, it can be assumed that our government’s inactions may be a result of the very same misconception that the public seem to have.
Though it is not entirely clear why our government and other relevant policy makers fail to abide by international laws (relating to human rights to prevent human trafficking), one thing is clear. The attitudes towards human rights and civil liberties have been miscomprehended, intentionally or otherwise.
Human trafficking is best defined as a form of human trade in which people are unwillingly bought and sold for a number of depraved activities. People who are highly susceptible usually come from the lower income group, are illiterate or have very little education; trafficked victims may be women, men or children. But there is a growing trend towards targeting refugees.
The issues that surround trafficked individuals are not as clear cut as some might want you to believe. Situations that lead people into such horrific positions vary from a promise of better economic opportunity, political or religious persecution and even abduction. The results are usually dreadful, and the victims find themselves completely helpless and terrified.
This vicious cycle of abuse is worsened when there are no clear regulations to strengthen legal frameworks, no helpline or assistance once victims find themselve thrown into a system full of apathy and suspicion. Industries that go unchecked are unregulated and untraceable; they are therefore able to financially support a variety of debasing activities such as money laundering, drugs, prostitution and terrorism, to name a few.
Malaysia has been scrutinised in the past, and this led to the signing of the Asean Human Rights Declaration in 2012. This move, whether sincere or superficial, came during a tumultuous period of heavy criticism regarding the way the Malaysian government and authorities handled human rights involving trafficking survivors, undocumented foreigners and refugees. Victims of the country’s poor human rights record also included fellow Malaysians whose only ‘crime’ was that of holding different political beliefs.
Although the declaration promotes an impartial handling of individuals regardless of race, religion, political beliefs or nationality, there is a clause that allows leeway for a nation to implement policies based on whatever and however the governing elite sees fit.
Our country is a source of demand for cheap labour. Because fair labour audits are not widely practised and there are very minimal employment inspections, most companies are able to exploit human capital. For example, we sometimes see advertisements for hourly domestic maids, but many of us fail to see the harsh realities that go hand-in hand in this often exploitative sector. Most of these hourly domestic workers work more than the hours permitted by labour laws and are subjected to harsh working environments with very little rest or access to basic amenities.
Cheap labour affects the economy and influences the job market. The demand for cheap labour from unscrupulous companies (construction sites, massage salons, food and beverage outlets, etc.) may give rise to traffickers who want to profit from this and subsequently, will be able to supply such demand.
Traffickers who collaborate with agents may lull unsuspecting workers with ‘better’ job opportunities abroad and then take away their passports once they have arrived at their destination. Thus, funfortunate migrant workers fall into forced labour and servitude. They are forced to work for a measly amount to pay off their debts and are unable to free themselves from deplorable conditions because they fear that their lives may be in danger.
As a result, skilled and qualified Malaysians are often replaced by unskilled, cheap labour which is counter-productive to our country’s growth. Furthermore, with no proper background checks on past employment history or personal backgrounds, the origins of these workers (where they come from and how they got here) are unclear.
It seems more apparent these days that the idea of embracing human rights has been brushed aside by those who should be supporting it the most. In Malaysia, supporters who advocate such beliefs are labeled as infidels and ungodly and are thus subjected to conditions that guarantee the suppression of any forward-thinking opinions. This idea has also been drilled into the minds of our fellow countrymen and women; hence, we witness never-ending disputes and name calling.
Reports claim that at present, human trafficking generates an estimated profit of US$150bn a year, though one can safely assume that the actual figures are much higher. Additionally, the UN recognises human trafficking as the “second fastest growing criminal enterprise, behind only drug trafficking”.
Human trafficking destroys the legitimacy of commerce and undermines honest commercial institutions. Malaysia’s ‘wholesome’ image as a family-friendly tourism destination and as a credible location for businesses to invest is jeopardised as our country can no longer guarantee fair labour practices or civil liberties – two important pillars that underpin healthy progress.
The sordid exploitation behind trafficking is not only morally unbecoming but is also a crime against humanity. Pro-active policies and convincing methods must thereforce be implemented wholeheartedly to combat human trafficking if we are serious about salvaging our nation’s dignity and integrity. The horrors of human trafficking are limitless and no man, woman or child should ever be made to experience such horrific ordeals.