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RIGHTS-MALAYSIA: Human Trafficking Charges Stick – Activists

KUALA LUMPUR, Jun 14 2007 (IPS) - Nothing could be more intolerable for Malaysia than to be lumped together with Burma, North Korea and Iran. But the United States has done precisely that, naming Malaysia among “worst offenders” in human trafficking, bonded labour, sex trade and child prostitution.

Predictably, Malaysia reacted with horror at the classification, accusing the U.S. state department of behaving as the uninvited “judge, jury and prosecutor” without just cause. “It&#39s all false, not true. We reject it,” said foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar.

But opposition lawmakers and human rights activists who had long campaigned inside and outside the country against human trafficking said the report&#39s conclusions are true and verifiable. “It is a damning report, it is a major black mark on Malaysia&#39s already tarnished human record. It tells a lot about our treatment of migrant workers and victims of trafficking,” said Teresa Kok, opposition lawmaker.

“No matter how hard it is to swallow we must accept the report&#39s conclusion and work to clean up our record,” Kok, a campaigner for women&#39s rights and migrant worker issues, told IPS in an interview. “We have nearly two million migrant workers in the country and many are really trafficked persons. They live and work in virtual servitude. We are at least a decade late in respecting their human rights.&#39&#39

“Our awareness and response to this heinous crime is shamefully low,” she added.

Parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang has asked the government to table a ministerial statement in parliament next week explaining its “abysmal handling” of the rights of migrant workers and trafficked persons.

“But if the government genuinely feels it is wronged by the U.S. report then it should explain in parliament giving all the details how it was wronged and rebut the U.S. State Department&#39s findings,” Lim told IPS.

“It is not enough to brush aside the report. The inclusion of Malaysia as a Tier 3 offender is a serious matter with repercussions. It must not be taken lightly,” Lim said. “Our lawmakers will want to know how we fell this low.”

The report titled &#39Trafficking in Persons Report 2006&#39 put Malaysia and a dozen other countries like Burma, Iran, North Korea and Syria among other countries in the Tier 3 of “worst offenders.”

The 236-page report launched by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington last week charged Malaysia, which has nearly two million migrant workers both documented and undocumented, with doing little to combat human trafficking.

Rice cited “disturbing evidence” that prosecution of human trafficking cases had levelled off across the globe. In countries with major human trafficking problems, “only a couple” of traffickers were brought to justice,” she was quoted as saying in the media. “This cannot and must not be tolerated.”

Reflecting conditions in Malaysia and elsewhere Rice said weak law rendered foreign workers vulnerable to abuse in both private homes and work sites. The report noted that Malaysia had tabled in parliament a tough anti-human trafficking law but, despite that, has “failed to fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.”

Malaysia has not punished acts of trafficking, provided adequate shelters and social services to victims, and protected migrant workers from involuntary servitude. “The government did not establish a government-run shelter for foreign trafficking victims that it had announced publicly in 2004,” the report said.

“Without procedures for the identification of victims, the government continued to treat some trafficking victims as illegal immigrants, and arrest, incarcerate, and deport them,” the report said, adding, that as a regional economic leader approaching developed nation status Malaysia has the resources and government infrastructure to do far more in addressing the issue of trafficking in persons.

“The Malaysian government needs to demonstrate stronger political will to tackle Malaysia&#39s significant forced labour and sex trafficking problems,” the report said in a damning lengthy section on Malaysia.

Last year, Malaysia was in the ‘Tier 2 watch list&#39 with other countries that are making little significant effort to comply with international standards to protect victims of human trafficking.

‘&#39It was a warning,&#39&#39 said Agile Fernandez, migrant worker programme coordinator with Tenaganita, a prominent rights group.

Perhaps in anticipation of the Tier 3 listing, Malaysia had rushed through in parliament last month a tough new Anti-Human Trafficking bill that metes out up to 20 years in prison for traffickers, provides shelter for trafficked children and women and treat trafficked persons not as illegal immigrants but as victims needing help and support.

The bill protects victims and severely punishes people who trafficked, harboured or profited from the offence.

Most female trafficked victims are from neighbouring countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines and many end up as sex slaves or bonded labour. Malaysia is also a transit centre for these women, who are forced into vice in third countries, especially Europe.

NGOs like Tenaganita are hoping the report would spur the government to improve conditions, rectify shortcomings and get out of the “denial syndrome.” They lay the blame on corruption. “Official corruption is at the core of the problem…it&#39s the evil that is fuelling trafficking here,” said Fernandez of Tenaganita.

“This is why trafficking is rampant and why prosecution of offenders is few and far,” she told IPS. “Trafficking syndicates regularly bribe officials to close an eye.”

Fernandez also said the problem is compounded by low awareness among the public and officials on human rights of migrant workers and trafficked persons. “There is apathy and ignorance. There is a use-and-discard mentality and culture,” she said. “There are no permanent policies, everything is ad hoc and very reactive.”

Opposition lawmakers and rights activists have long argued that a comprehensive law on workers covering every aspect that respects their human rights would help reduce trafficking, exploitation and modern day slave conditions.

“The government must find the political will to see that the new anti-trafficking bill (now tabled in parliament) is made a law and strictly enforced,” Fernandez said.

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