Malaysia must refine existing framework to protect human trafficking victims

Trafficking in persons is a heinous crime that feeds on inequality, vulnerability, low wages, unemployment, and instability.

In conjunction with World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, which falls on July 30 every year, we need to ensure that we reach out to all victims of trafficking, wherever they are.

Anyone is susceptible to being trafficked, particularly women, children, and vulnerable individuals. Therefore, increasing public awareness about the risks and signs of human trafficking is important in any anti-trafficking strategy.

The elevation from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List in the United States’ State Department’s Annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report is testament to Malaysia’s commitment to combating human trafficking, despite not meeting the US’ minimum standards.

The improvement in Malaysia’s ranking was due to its approach to addressing trauma, victim identification, and reforms in its anti-trafficking laws. It was also due to law enforcement agencies and government officers’ continued engagement with academics, and non-governmental, and foreign organisations.

These engagements were carried out through dialogues, policy engagements, and capacity-building training. These programmes were able to help law enforcement officers improve their current practices and identify issues in countering human trafficking activities. They also helped build their confidence and enhanced their understanding and knowledge of human trafficking.

Shelters

A particular issue of concern is the mandatory requirement for rescued trafficked victims to live in shelters pending the disposal of their cases in court, which can take up to three months, or more.

Shelter occupation is imposed on victims without any option to decline. There’s also limited space in shelters, which becomes problematic when more victims are rescued.

Although victims can be conferred the right to work or given a Temporary Work Pass (PLKS) by the Immigration Department, their applications need to undergo certain vetting processes by MAPO, which involves bureaucracy and clearance from authorities. This does not make it any easier for victims to heal and re-integrate into society.

While the mandatory shelter policy may be regarded as a benevolent act by the government, this mandatory requirement is perceived as unnecessary by most victims due to its punitive nature and stringent practices. Shelter living confines victims to the shelter, isolates them from society, and restricts them from communicating with their families and friends. Such strict rules can be regarded as over-policing, which defeats the purpose of victim protection.

Nevertheless, the shelters need to remain in operation, particularly for those who opt to live there. But for this to materialise, it is necessary for the victims to decide if they wish to live in the shelter and remain in the state’s custody.

Recommendations
 
To accommodate trafficked victims, the conditions and facilities in the shelters need to be improved. Translators, medical, and counselling personnel are required on site.

The need for larger space in shelters is vital to ensure proper ventilation, a conducive environment, and privacy for the victims, as well as the staff working in the shelters.

Since trafficked victims are also compelled to be witnesses in court, it is imperative that their welfare, health, and wellbeing are properly looked after.

Although the shelter provides food and basic necessities, the living conditions and facilities do not fulfil the standards as recommended by the OHCHR’s Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking.

It is also worth noting that addressing issues faced by victims is far more challenging compared to other groups of people. This is because victims may have experienced trauma and prolonged harm.

Therefore, assisting victims of trafficking would require an in-depth understanding of their physical, sexual, financial, emotional, legal, and psychological wellbeing.

This can be achieved by providing ongoing training to the shelter wardens, staff, and victim support personnel, or Victims Assistance Services.

It is also imperative to establish a licencing regime for individual work agents and employees of work agencies. For a licence to be issued, the applicant would need to pass the necessary tests and undergo training. A licenced agent would also benefit by ensuring that they are protected by the law at all times and have the capacity to negotiate work dealings on behalf of the agency they are working for.

The process of granting the right to work and the right to movement should also be made easier. Perhaps a T-Visa as practiced by the US, or a Trafficking Victim Work Visa, as practiced by New Zealand or Australia, can be introduced in Malaysia, which gives the right to victims to remain and work in Malaysia for a considerable length of time.

Conclusion

It is imperative for each and every individual to be vigilant and to be aware of any human trafficking activities around them. It is also important to inculcate human trafficking awareness among children, the youth, and the public as a whole, in order to assist the authorities in combating human trafficking.

With continuous effort, Malaysia will be able to strengthen, develop, and improve its framework, namely the prevention, prosecution, and protection of victims of human trafficking.

This could further lead to an upgrade of Tier 2 of the US Trafficking in Persons Report.

Dr Haezreena Begum Abdul Hamid is a criminologist and Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Universiti Malaya.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of Twentytwo13.