ucanews.com reporter, Kuala LumpurUpdated: August 22, 2016 04:15 AM GMT
A Malaysian policeman checks a driver's document a day after the government announced the discovery of camps and graves near the Malaysia-Thailand border in Wang Kelian on May 25. A total of 139 grave sites and 28 human-trafficking camps were found in a remote northern Malaysian border region. (Photo by AFP)
Efforts to wipe out human trafficking in Malaysia have hit a wall as authorities struggle to deal with what to do with ever increasing numbers of victims, especially women.
Months after being rescued from their situation and placed under "interim protection orders," human trafficking victims languish without a clue as to when they can reclaim their lives. Their sheer number proves that the authorities are struggling to get a grip on the problem, rights groups say.
There are seven government facilities housing trafficking victims around the country — four for women, one for men, and two for child victims. The majority of victims in the shelters are women forced into prostitution.
In the crammed shelters, frustrations often boil over and fights break out as victims wait their turn to tell their story in court. That day is not guaranteed.
There were 158 suspected trafficking cases filed last year, down from 186 in 2014, according to Hakam, the national human rights society. A total of 247 arrests were made in 2015 (figures for the previous year are unavailable) but only seven resulted in convictions.
Local activists say the majority of sentences imposed have not been commensurate with offenses. One trafficker was given a day's jail plus a fine of 20,000 ringgit (US$5,000) and three others were given sentences of one to three years in jail.
"It's always the same," said social activist Anne Keyworth. "Some [victims] get fed up and withdraw their complaint while those who persevere feel they are treated as the accused and not as victims," said Keyworth.
The 70-year-old is among those who have continuously advocated for stricter enforcement of the law in the east Malaysian state of Sabah — a destination for thousands of economic migrants from the Philippines and Indonesia.
"I remember one case where the victim became reluctant to give evidence when she discovered the interpreter taking her testimony had facilitated her recruitment by traffickers," she said.
"Sometimes the employer or the agent is wealthy or well-connected and suddenly there is no case," she continued. "Or the employer may offer to help the victim in exchange for silence during prosecution."
Keyworth said that some victims are too scared to go to the police because they allege they are among their abusers.
"The women wait for months for justice and suddenly there's no case because someone has intimidated them," she said.
"If people see the system as corrupt … it's hard to trust the officials," Keyworth added.
Glorene Das, Women's Force Executive Director for Tenaganita — a local NGO — said that they have not seen any progress in combating human trafficking year on year.
"The discovery of the mass graves took place last year but the problem has been evident from at least 2008," she said referring to the graves of human trafficking victims found near the Malaysia-Thailand border.
Many of the bodies discovered belonged to Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar.
Das also pointed to a lack of cooperation and coordination between government agencies that are responsible for anti-trafficking enforcement. "Corruption is rife in Malaysia and it feeds trafficking," she said.
Another problem is the lack of "clear policies and monitoring mechanisms with transparency and accountability" though Malaysia is a destination country for millions of migrants and refugees, she said.
In 2014, when Malaysia was on Tier 3 of the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons report, there were only 54 prosecutions and three convictions.
A Tier 3 listing is for countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.
Malaysia was upgraded last year to the Tier 2 Watch List which groups countries which have not fully complied with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act's minimum standards, but are seen as making efforts to do so.
One Malaysian lawmaker, Darell Leiking, said he does not believe the government has put in sufficient resources to curb human trafficking in the country. Leiking, a Catholic, said he wants the government to "put out statistics on what it has done."
"We can see it. Migrants are free flowing and most times they end up in deplorable … forced labor conditions," Leiking said, adding that he planned to grill the government on their lack of progress in combating human trafficking at the next parliamentary sitting in October.