The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report has, for the past few years, been seen by many organisations tackling modern-day slavery as a tool for governments to undertake structural changes that would end the trafficking and enslavement of persons in their country.

With its stated ‘ultimate goals’ of ‘freeing victims, preventing trafficking, and bringing traffickers to justice, the report should serve as an honest account of the on-going realities that enable or dismantle slavery today. In light of this, Tenaganita therefore finds it both incredulous and shameful that the US Government should seek to upgrade Malaysia in its TIP ranking.

Since 2007, Malaysia has not moved past Tier-2 Watch List on the TIP ranking. In 2014, Malaysia was placed on Tier 3 of the TIP report because the government of the day didn’t fully comply with minimum standards and were not making significant efforts to combat human trafficking in the country.

President Barack Obama said, “It (human trafficking) ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to be the concern of every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets.

“It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organised crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name - modern slavery.”

Tenaganita is in agreement with this. The fight to end slavery however demands more than just empathic sentiments. It requires an active global response to dismantle the structures that facilitate slavery and a degradation of rights, and a rebuilding of systems that facilitate protection and promotion of rights, lives and dignity of all persons.

If the US TIP report stands as a reflection of the US government’s anti-human trafficking policy, then this upgrade reveals a terrifying hypocrisy and a further crippling of global efforts to end slavery.

With only three traffickers convicted for forced labour, corruption at its highest level, and the existence of policies that continue to suppress the migrant and refugee communities in the country, we are baffled at the reasons for Malaysia’s upgrade this year.

The US government made 14 recommendations to the Malaysian government in its report last year; however, very few recommendations were followed through. Confiscations of passports still remain a huge area of concern with employers often advised by agents as well as government officials to withhold the passports of their workers.

Victim identification still remains an immense challenge in Malaysia with domestic workers often not recognised as victims of human trafficking. The 500,000 wide community of domestic workers in Malaysia, both foreign and local are largely unprotected as there is still no comprehensive legal mechanism available for their protection.

Various reports released last year addressed the issues of forced labour as well as child labour in the electronics and palm oil industries in Malaysia but what has the Malaysian government done about it to overcome the crucial issues of human trafficking?

Victims continue to be prosecuted

Victims of trafficking continue to be prosecuted and deported under Malaysia’s Immigration Act. Fishermen who are trafficked are not recognised as victims, but instead, are incarcerated and later deported to their home countries without receiving even basic remuneration for the work they performed.

Tenaganita documented irrefutable evidence of hundreds of errant recruitment agencies that cheated thousands of migrant workers of their money during the 6P legalisation period, and submitted documented evidence to the top police and immigration authorities in the country. However, no errant agent was ever taken to task because of corruption. There was a lack of cooperation and coordination between the different government enforcement agencies

Training conducted to empower enforcement agencies still do not trickle down to the ground level, resulting in a huge lacuna in identifying victims of human trafficking.

The situation of refugees in the country has not been properly addressed. Refugees and  asylum seekers are allowed to stay in Malaysia but are prevented from working legally. They become vulnerable to exploitation due to the  negation of their right to work ,and often fall prey to traffickers with many exploited in the labour force, while women are forced into prostitution and children forced into the thriving begging industry in the country.

The discovery of the ass graves of victims of human trafficking no doubt only took place this year but the problem has been evident from at least 2008. Tenaganita’s publication ‘The Revolving Door’ details how these incidences have been ongoing and how rife corruption was and still is amongst government officials who abet trafficking.

No concrete action has been taken by the Malaysian government to stop human trafficking at the Malaysia/Thailand Border. To date, how many government officials and traffickers been charged for these crimes in Malaysia?

The case of Haili is a clear example of the inefficiencies of the Malaysian Government on child victim protection.  Haili was only 14 when she was trafficked into Malaysia to work as a domestic worker. She worked for two years without any wages and was constantly abused. One day she was sexually abused by both her male and female employers, causing Haili to bleed severely.

However she managed to escape and was taken to the hospital. She had to undergo three surgeries on her arrival. She survived miraculously and remained in the hospital for five months with damages to her anus and intestine. She was identified as a victim of trafficking and referred to the government shelter.

However; she received no further treatment and was forced to withdraw her case against her employer - the perpetrator. Presently she is being sheltered and protected by Tenaganita while she seeks further urgent medical treatment and Tenaganita is unsure on the status of her case. If Malaysia had complied with the minimum standard as required for the upgrade, wouldn’t Haili’s perpetrators be prosecuted?

Dangerous message

The upgrading of Malaysia to  Tier 2 watch list sends a dangerous message not just to the government of Malaysia but also to all 188 countries covered by the US TIP report, that human trafficking and modern-day slavery can be condoned with impunity; it makes a mockery of the TIP report.The US claims to value human rights but it is now prepared to barter the freedom, dignity and lives of victims of human trafficking  for its own economic gain.

As persons concerned with the ending of slavery, it isn’t sufficient for us to be enraged by this dishonest depiction of the reality in Malaysia. A strong critique on the motivations of this upgrade is needed. What is the US to gain from lauding a country that systematically degrades the rights of migrants and refugees, and has institutionalised and profited off modern-day slavery?

Is Malaysia’s TIP upgrade motivated by the strong push from the U.S for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), as the US Congress recently passed a provision that would prevent the US from entering trade deals with countries on the lowest TIP report ranking?

The integrity and value of the TIP report is definitely in question now.



GLORENE A DAS is director of Tenaganita Women’s Force.