Malaysia needs to wake up to its human trafficking problem – Tenaganita

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A cage used for illegal immigrants found at a human-trafficking camp in Wang Kelian, near the Malaysia-Thailand border of Wang Kelian - File photograph: Hasnoor Hussain/The Malaysian Insider

Let us have the courage to take a stand against the perpetrators of human trafficking rather than choosing to prosecute and punish innocent victims, Tenaganita says.

For the third consecutive year, Malaysia remains on the “Tier 2 watch list” of the US Trafficking In Persons Report released by the US State Department on 25 June2020.

As we know the tier rankings are established upon an assessment of a country’s efforts to prevent trafficking in persons, to prosecute traffickers and to protect survivors of trafficking, through a combination of legislative acts, collaboration with civil society, commitment to channel funding to combat human trafficking, and undertaking other proactive measures to identify and protect victims of trafficking.

However, Malaysia’s position on the Tier 2 watch list reflects poor governance and a lack of political will by the Malaysian government to collectively, systematically and holistically combat modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

Malaysia’ s Tier 2 watch list position comes as no surprise to Tenaganita, which in fact expected a down grade to Tier 3. It is fortunate that because of a waiver, Malaysian remains in Tier 2 of the watch list.

There appears to be a different understanding and interpretation of what human trafficking is. Each enforcement unit, the ministries, Mapo (National Council on Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants) and NGOs has different ideas, different interpretations of what human trafficking is. We are still grappling to understand what constitutes human trafficking, without putting the protection of the victim/survivor as the basis of these efforts.

We are constantly giving excuses and justifications for our failure to identify victims based on the misconception that migrants and trafficked victims are ‘bad people’ and therefore deported without delay.

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What is even worse is that many victims and survivors of human trafficking are charged with offences under the Immigration Act and penalised instead of being protected. As long as the authorities and the Attorney General’s Chambers continue to labour under these misconceptions, human trafficking will not be a priority agenda in Malaysia.

Aegile Fernandez, Tenaganita’s consultant and expert on anti-human trafficking said, “As we see over and over the years, we have the same problem, we do not have the guts to sit down, to talk, to debate and to listen to each other – that is a huge problem. I empathise with all these victims who have to go back empty-handed, no justice given to them – this is bad for Malaysia.

“And it does not help when we see other countries in the region moving up to tier two and one. We do not know where exactly Malaysia is going on the road to combating human trafficking. I feel the same way as the victims of trafficking that there is no hope here – for the victims are not given their rights or listened to, but we give so-called rights to the perpetrators.”

The immediate step is for Malaysia to have the fortitude to buck up to fight corruption; if this fails we will be in the same position or even at Tier 3 next year. Many of our efforts and initiatives in the past years to combat human trafficking have failed simply because of corruption which is so embedded in all our systems.

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Malaysia continues to be the hub of human trafficking for that very reason, so there is a burning need for all to come together to fight corruption without fear or favour. We must put corrupt people behind bars, not just fine them, seize all their assets and their accounts, and take all the actions provided for in the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007 to cripple them.

Furthermore, it is of utmost importance that the state invests in strengthening the competencies of prosecutors and enforcement officers, and demonstrates increased transparency in the state’s case management and prosecutions of human trafficking cases. This can be carried out with the establishment of a review committee within Mapo to review the handling of all human trafficking cases handled by the authorities. This is crucial for the way forward in the right direction because transparency is critical especially where state actors may work hand-in-glove with human traffickers.

Tenaganita is well aware that Mapo is trying very hard to bring about changes by putting together the national action plan on anti-trafficking of persons, and we appreciate the collaboration. But it is also high time that different ministries and authorities start listening to the survivors, victims and NGOs. We cannot just talk about victim-centred approaches without placing the victims and survivors’ needs at the centre of the discussions, debates and actions.

Until and unless the key players in the different government bodies are prepared to listen, to sit together, to debate and change the style of working, we will continue to be in the Tier 2 watch list and 3; there is no way out, we cannot hoodwink ourselves, other Malaysians and the global community with national action plans.

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Let us have the courage to take a stand against the perpetrators of human trafficking rather than choosing to prosecute and punish innocent victims. So let’s stop simply having diplomatic handshakes, but sit together seriously with other stakeholders to discuss critical issues that concern this heinous crime against humanity – human trafficking – once and for all.

Glorene A Das is executive director of Tenaganita

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