Updated: June 21, 2019 09:15 AM GMT
A Malaysian policeman carries human skeletal remains inside plastic bags exhumed from graves following the discovery of numerous grave sites and detention camps near the Malaysia-Thailand border in Wang Kelian on May 25, 2015. (AFP photo)
The United States has kept Malaysia on its watch list of countries that do not meet minimum efforts for the elimination of human trafficking.
The 2019 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, launched on June 20 by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said Malaysia’s government had not demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared with the previous year.
But the report noted that Malaysia's year-old government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had initiated an official Royal Commission of Inquiry into the mass graves of human trafficking victims at Wang Kelian near the border with Thailand.
"In general, the situation has not changed in any significant way,” said Dobby Chew of human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia.
The report covers the 2018 calendar year during which Malaysia changed government for the first time in its history when the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition won a shock election victory over the Barisan Nasional (National Front) grouping that had governed since independence.
"The Malaysian government is so occupied with national politics but not taking real action to combat trafficking,” said Zafar Ahmad Bin Abdul Ghani, president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia.
The TIP report comes as the United Nations estimates the global total of refugees or displaced people to be over 70 million, including around a million Rohingya who fled Myanmar, mostly to Bangladesh, in the wake of brutal army reprisals for attacks by Rohingya militants on border posts in 2016 and 2017.
Many Rohingya refugees tried to move on from vast refugee camps in Bangladesh, counting Malaysia among their preferred alternative destinations, but their plight leaves them vulnerable to trafficking.
“The traffickers continue to traffic Rohingya men, women and children. I received complaints that many Rohingya women were trafficked to Malaysia to be brides to Rohingya men in Malaysia,” said Abdul Ghani.
The Malaysian Human Rights Commission stated in 2018 that “refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia are also vulnerable to trafficking because a lack of recognition of their status prevents them from working legally in Malaysia. Most of them are often smuggled across the border."
The TIP report said that though Malaysia is making significant efforts to curb trafficking, it also prosecuted fewer cases compared to previous years and stopped funding non-governmental organizations that shelter victims.
"The government is failing to protect human trafficking victims,” said Ziaur Rahman, a Rohingya who in 2014 was kidnapped by traffickers in Bangladesh who forced him onto a boat bound for Thailand from where he was sold across the border into Malaysia. "Being a victim of human trafficking, there is still no protection for me,” he said.
Trafficking victims are vulnerable to cruel forms of exploitation, such as forced labor on plantations or in the commercial sex industry. An estimated 212,000 people are trapped in modern slavery in Malaysia, according to estimates by the Walk Free Foundation, an Australian NGO and publisher of an annual Global Slavery Index.
Malaysia avoided demotion to the TIP report’s bottom Tier 3 rung of countries, a grouping that includes China, Myanmar and North Korea and which carries with it the possibility of penalties such as the U.S. president opting to withhold “non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance.”
Vulnerable to exploitation
Malaysia's status in the TIP standings has fluctuated in recent years. It was relegated to the lowest Tier 3 designation in 2015, followed by successive upgrades to Tier 2 Watch List and Tier 2 before being demoted again to Tier 2 Watch List in 2018.
While Malaysia’s relatively advanced economy makes it a draw for migrants and refugees from less well-off neighbors, the scale of its foreign worker population leaves huge numbers of people potentially vulnerable to exploitation.
Around a fifth of Malaysia’s workforce is made up of foreign workers, but with large numbers of undocumented migrants and reported corruption in work permit approvals, many migrants are more vulnerable to trafficking, according to the TIP report.
For James Chin, a Malaysian political analyst and director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, the current government is more committed to tackling trafficking than its predecessor, but it faces challenges with police reform.
"The problem is they inherited a corrupted police and border force. It will take years to root out corruption,” he said.
A March 2019 report by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission and Fortify Rights, a U.S. human rights organization, alleged that the trafficking that culminated in the mass graves discovered in 2015 was facilitated by corrupt border officials.
The gruesome discoveries, thought to be the remains of Bangladeshis and Rohingya from Myanmar, prompted international outrage at Malaysia and Thailand for seemingly allowing traffickers to operate across their borders.
The March report further alleged that obstruction of justice may have occurred when police ordered the destruction of potential evidence at the camp where the grave was discovered. During a June 17 hearing at the Royal Commission of Inquiry, Arifin Zakaria, the former chief justice who chairs the commission, chastised former police chief Khalid Abu Bakar over delays in investigating the Wang Kelian site.
"When we find something, we must cordon off the area and go to the crime scene to gather evidence. However, when you told them to hold on, they never went into the site,” Zakaria said.
The TIP report also cited ongoing cases related to people-smuggling networks allegedly involving 600 officials at Kuala Lumpur International Airport as well as investigations of officials and police officers for related offences elsewhere — cases that “remained ongoing at the end of the reporting period.”
With Malaysian PM Mahathir attending a summit of ASEAN leaders in Thailand from June 22-23, activists want governments to at least try to address the plight of the Rohingya.
"We are frustrated that the United Nations and ASEAN are not taking real action to stop genocide. Trafficking of Rohingya will continue unless we stop the Rohingya genocide,” said Abdul Ghani.