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Poverty and Human Trafficking in Malaysia

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

Srre Vaishnavi Palanisamy

During a recent search on 9th August 2022 at Kampung Sungai Udang, Klang, police freed six victims of human trafficking who were all migrants from forced labour. The case is now being examined under Section 44 of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007. This raises concerns about how prevalent human trafficking is in Malaysia and the level of its awareness among the general population.

When considering crime often we typically think of murder, rape and theft. Not many of us are aware of human trafficking, a grave offence that occurs when someone is compelled into service. With 165 cases reported in 2020 compared to only 17 cases in 2008, human trafficking cases appear to be on the rise in Malaysia. From April 2020 to March 2021, the Malaysian government found and verified 119 victims of human trafficking out of 487 possible victims.

Human trafficking and poverty

Human trafficking is often referred to as a modern-day slavery for a variety of different purposes such as for forced labour, criminal activities, sexual exploitation or torgan removal. One of the primary causes of human trafficking is poverty. Malaysians as a whole have been let down by the current economic system in terms of wages, jobs, and wealth generation: 5.6% of Malaysian households are reportedly living in absolute poverty as of July 2020 when the country's national poverty line was most recently amended. Traffickers tend to target and exploit this group of people, promising them a means to make money.

A lack of education may result in less prospects to find work that provides a living wage, alongside a potential lesser awareness of one's rights. According to Dr. Maszlee Malik, former education minister and Member of Parliament (MP), over a million Malaysian-born children are not in school. Besides, more than 30% of Malaysia's labour pool consists of migrant workers who are also at risk of falling victim to human or labour trafficking. These point at the weaknesses in our labour law that has the potential to lead to human trafficking.

Additionally, Datuk Dr Madeline Berma, who is a human right activist and a member of Academy of Sciences Malaysia, claimed that probably one of the reasons Malaysia had become a primary focus for human trafficking networks was because the system had flaws that could be exploited. The loopholes through corruption are considered an obvious weakness. She added that the occurrence of widespread human trafficking activities at the nation's borders is unexpected, provided that they are well-guarded by law enforcement organisations with the necessary resources and training.

It is speculated that multiple transit stations have been established by international human trafficking groups in the southern region of the neighbouring country to hold illegal immigrants, particularly those from Myanmar. According to Superintendent Mat Shukor Yusof, the commanding officer of the General Operations Force (GOF) Eighth battalion, the transit areas are utilised by human traffickers as temporary camps before the illegal immigrants are transported to Malaysia through the Kelantan border. In a recent incident, 13 people from Myanmar were apprehended on March 16, 2022 for unlawfully entering the country. When GOF members arrested the 13, which included two women, they were hiding behind bushes in Kampung Bakong.

Addressing concerns

The Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act, often known as ATIPSOM(2007), was put into effect in 2008 by the Malaysian government in order to curtail the spread of this crime. The Council for Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (MAPO) was set up by the government in line with the ATIPSOM Act to coordinate the Act's implementation. Moreover, MAPO is entrusted with creating policies and initiatives to deter and combat Malaysia's migrant smuggling and human trafficking crimes. Since the council is made up of a number of ministries, law enforcement agencies, and other organisations including relevant NGOs, it also functions and behaves in an inclusive manner.

Although a number of methods were initiated by the authorities, according to the US' Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report for 2022, Malaysia has still remained at Tier 3 with US authorities saying Putrajaya is not making considerable efforts to eradicate trafficking. It must be noted however that according to Putrajaya, a five-year national action plan against forced labour had also been adopted, which also emphasised that it had sentenced more traffickers to prison time than it had during the previous reporting period and had given out more freedom of movement passes to victims who had been recognised and were staying in government-funded shelters.

To keep the nation from becoming a target of international human trafficking syndicates, border control procedures must be strengthened and flaws fixed, particularly those related to corruption. Governmental organisations need to take the issue more seriously by enacting stronger policies and laws. Local media has a significant obligation to inform the public about relevant issues and to cover incidents or problems regarding human trafficking. In order to raise public knowledge of the problem, community-level awareness campaigns against human trafficking and corruption need to be strengthened.

The English politician and founder of the fight to abolish the slave trade, William Wilberforce, once said, "You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know”. Undoubtedly, human trafficking is a vile and cruel crime which is humiliating for humanity and a clear violation of human rights, such as the right to not be held in slavery or servitude as well as the right to freedom of movement and residence. More people are trafficked annually, with a growing number here in Malaysia, yet the response from authorities continues to fall short.


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