Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

MALAYSIA: Gov’t Urged to Stem the Tide of Child Trafficking

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Sep 26 2009 (IPS) - “My family was starving. . . . I was sold to people who brought me here to work and feed my family back home,” said Ah Mun, a victim of child trafficking.

The 13-year-old girl from Kachin state, in northern Burma, thinks herself fortunate compared to other trafficked children who have been forced into the flesh trade.

Ah Mun cleans and packs fish and shrimp at a fish market in the capital. “I am lucky,” she said in halting Malay. “I heard that others from my country have been forced to work to satisfy men.”

She has no travel documents, and is neither listed in her employer’s employment book nor is she recognised as a citizen by the Burmese embassy. International trafficking syndicates bought her and shipped her overland from Burma through Thailand into Malaysia, where she was sold to traders in 2007.

Traffickers had promised her parents she would remit at least $900 U.S. dollars a month, a princely sum in Burma (official called Myanmar), by selling perfume in a famous Japanese-owned shopping complex in the city.

“They showed them brochures and gave some money, and my parents agreed,” Ah Mun said with a resigned smile on her face. “I wish I could see them again.”

She gets 20 Malaysian ringgit (6 U.S. dollars) a day for a 15-hour job as a cleaner, hardly enough to remit money home. “At least here, I have food, a job and some money. Back home there is nothing, and one meal a day is hard,” she said.

Her fate is shared by increasing numbers of other Asian children, numbering thousands, who are smuggled into Malaysia and other Asian capitals and forced to work mostly as cheap labour or in the sex trade.

In the international human trafficking trade, Malaysia is emerging as a key transit centre – a trend that has raised alarm bells among rights activists, lawyers and United Nations agencies like the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Trafficking is “considered to be one of the most profitable businesses in the world today,” said UNICEF. It “has become so lucrative that it is able to amass profits in the billions of dollars, similar to the trade in illegal drugs and arms.”

A UNICEF report, ‘Child Trafficking in East and South-East Asia: Reversing the Trend’, released early this month, has concluded that trafficking in the region is rampant.

“Reported forms of child trafficking involve labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, forced marriage, criminal activities, armed conflict, adoption and begging,” said the report.

But what is most often reported is sexual exploitation, especially commercial sexual exploitation. “It may or may not constitute the majority of child trafficking cases in the region, but it is the one that gains the most attention,” added the report, which was based on country-level assessments in seven countries, namely, China, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam in early 2008.

Migration experts who monitor the situation say trafficking syndicates prefer Malaysia as an ideal jump-off point because of its long, unguarded and porous border, corrupt officials ever willing to “close an eye” and the presence of nearly four million documented and undocumented migrant workers who act as cover for child traffickers.

They also said Malaysia is a major transit point because of its first-class world air transport and information and communication technologies coupled with a cavalier attitude toward human rights issues and official corruption.

Child rights advocates and other concerned sectors have urged Malaysian officials to wake up and act to stem the heinous trade. “We are alarmed at the situation,” said Dr Irene Fernandez, an expert on migrant labour and head of the rights group Tenaganita (Women’s Force), in an interview with IPS.

“Officials, including political leaders, remain blind to the emerging threat and the potential impact on Malaysia’s image.” They are also insensitive to child trafficking as a heinous crime, Fernandez said.

According to Tenaganita the demand for children and women – as cheap labour and for the sex trade — has been consistently rising over the years and made worse by the global economic slowdown beginning in late 2007. “Among the victims are children as young as nine years and elderly women,” said Fernandez.

The NGO head expressed fears that the powerful trafficking syndicates were also grooming young children to become prostitutes and actors in child pornography. “Increasingly we fear they are trafficked for child labour or illegal organ harvesting,” she said. Experts estimate that some 1.2 million children, in both industrialised and developing countries, are trafficked annually. These children are subjected to prostitution, forced into marriage or illegally adopted and often used as cheap or unpaid labour in houses and even forced to work as beggars on the streets.

“Child trafficking in Malaysia is a serious threat, but there is no proper collaboration amongst government agencies to combat it,’ said Dr Hartini Zainuddin, an adviser to Rumah Nur Salam, a shelter for underprivileged children.

Speaking at a media forum on child trafficking, Hartini said officers in the immigration, marine, customs and police departments were not trained to deal with young victims. “Some were treated as routine illegal immigrants and deported,” she added. “This situation must change… awareness must be raised significantly.”

Although Malaysia has been a signatory to the Convention of the Rights of the Child since 1995, there have been many gaps in the treaty’s implementation, she said. Lack of proper counseling for traumatised victims is one of them, she added.

According to UNICEF Malaysia is also one of five countries in the region that have enacted legislation specific to trafficking. The others are Indonesia, Lao PDR, the Philippines and Thailand.

The UNICEF study calls for new approaches to combat child trafficking and other related forms of abuse and exploitation. Among the solutions the report cites is the creation of national child protection systems similar to national health care systems to protect children from exploitation. UNICEF Malaysia representative Youssouf Oomar said the authorities in the region are short of well-trained personnel – a setback, he said, in the fight against child trafficking.

Malaysian Bar Council president Ragunath Kesavan said the issues must be addressed at a regional level to effectively stem the trade. The root causes that fuel child trafficking — which he identifies as poverty, broken family and lack of opportunities — have to be tackled at every level.

“These push factors, (compounded by) a growing demand for sex with children, are a driving force behind the trafficking of minors,” he told IPS.

Human trafficking is big business, with “revenues” reaching into the billions each year, other experts said. Numerous people profit from the business and at all levels, including document forgers, corrupt officials, transport workers, pimps and even hotels and restaurants that are accomplices to the crime.

Malaysia’s police say they are aware of the situation and bracing for a “long and hard” battle against child traffickers. Deputy chief of the National Police, Ismail Omar, told local newspapers last week that the police needed to understand the issue and would win the battle, but progress would be “slow but significant.”

“It is impossible for any one country to become an overnight success in combating child trafficking. I can say our force has the will power and determination to defeat the trafficking syndicates,” he said.

But critics say such a determination still remains on paper and that significant progress would only be achieved if this were translated into immediate and urgent action.

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