The Malaysian government’s launch in March 2021 of the National Anti-Trafficking in Persons 3.0 (2021-2025), its latest plan for tackling human trafficking, did not do much to improve Malaysia’s performance in the U.S. government’s latest Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which was released in June. In the report, which rates countries’ efforts to combat human trafficking, Malaysia remained lodged at Tier 3, the report’s lowest rating, which is reserved for nations that are judged to be failing to do enough to curb human trafficking. This is the fourth year in which the Malaysian government has been downgraded to Tier 3. (The other years were 2007, 2014, and 2021.)
A government’s placement at Tier 3 signifies that it has not completely complied with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and is not making significant efforts to eliminate human trafficking activities in its country.
According to the TIP Report, Malaysia remains a preferred destination for human traffickers, who covertly traffic vulnerable victims from the surrounding region into the country or use it as a transit point for transferring these victims to other destinations.
When Malaysia fell to Tier 3 in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stepped up its efforts to curb the problem by amending the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling Act 2007 and launching National Anti-Trafficking in Persons 3.0 (NAPTIP 3.0 for short).
NAPTIP 3.0 is a strategic blueprint that outlines the government’s plans for combating human trafficking in Malaysia for the next five years. According to Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin, NAPTIP 3.0 and the amended Anti-Smuggling Act represent significant efforts to combat human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants more effectively, especially with the reopening of international borders.
The pandemic forced countries around the world to close their borders to mitigate the rapid spread of COVID-19, which slowed or halted the movement of goods, capital, and people. However, international agencies have advised governments to tighten border security measures as the pandemic wanes, warning that the reopening of borders will offer a golden opportunity for human traffickers.
Specifically, people who have been greatly affected by the socio-economic crisis prompted by the pandemic will be the perfect prey for perpetrators. Such people could be easily manipulated with false promises of job opportunities in countries like Malaysia.
As a framework for combating human trafficking activities in Malaysia, the NAPTIP 3.0 action plan looks good on paper, but as always, the pertinent question is how effective the plan will be in practice. The U.S. State Department downgraded Malaysia to Tier 3 in its latest TIP Report for its lack of efforts in the elimination of human trafficking and protection of trafficking victims, as well as for the small number of trafficking prosecutions compared to the previous year.
Before the creation of NAPTIP 3.0, the government’s anti-trafficking efforts were guided by NAPTIP 2.0 (2016-2020) and NAPTIP (2010-2015), which were developed jointly by the Secretariat of the Council of Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (MAPO), government agencies, civil society organizations, and international organizations. Therefore, the government is confident that NAPTIP 3.0 will further strengthen its current policies and processes, as well as develop strategies to address gaps in the country’s battle against human trafficking.
First, NAPTIP 3.0 calls for the intensification of law enforcement, including inter-agency cooperation and international collaboration. Second, it calls for a strategic partnership with relevant government agencies, civil society organizations, and international agencies. Third, it outlines improvements to the existing protection mechanisms for victims of human trafficking. Finally, it outlines efforts to educate the public on human trafficking and increase efforts to raise awareness and disseminate vital information via effective media campaigns. The government must also be more serious in collaborating with relevant local non-governmental organizations at all levels.
While NAPTIP 3.0 is a continuous effort to curb human trafficking, the government also has to increase its border security measures, especially to reflect the reality that human trafficking is very often conducted legally. Perpetrators can enter the country along with their victims, armed with legal entry and work documents. Therefore, it is crucial to improve and increase the capacity of border security at every international entry point.
Since the establishment of MAPO in 2008, two enforcement agencies have been mainly responsible for border security: the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP) and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, which have cooperated with other government agencies such as the Malaysian Immigration Department, Royal Malaysian Customs and Excise, and the Department of Labor. To further enhance the integration of operations, the government established a National Task Force under the control of the Malaysian Armed Forces in April 2020 to manage illegal entries into Malaysia. Apart from the aforementioned government agencies, a strong partnership was also formed between the Civil Defense Agency, the Ministry of Health, and the Malaysian Border Security Agency to fortify border security measures.
However, in July, the Malaysian parliament unanimously approved the dissolution of the Malaysian Border Security Agency Act. The duties of the border security agency have since been taken over by the RMP. According to the deputy home minister, Ismail Mohamed Said, the move will help improve the efficacy of operations in land border areas since the police have the mandate to carry out efficient and systematic planning through the General Operations Force, under the Department of Internal Security and Public Order. The inspector-general of police now has total command and control over border security assignments.
The bill was debated and tabled to curb the smuggling of drugs into the country following the Thai government’s decision to decriminalize cannabis. Combating human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants should be given equal importance by the government, particularly with the reopening of borders across the region. It is commendable that the government is stepping up its efforts through national action plans but the crucial task is to back this up with effective preventive measures, strategic partnerships, and the further strengthening of law enforcement, as well as increasing the number of prosecutions and improving victim protection. The recent TIP Report has offered reasonable recommendations for the government and its agencies to consider as they move to improve the country’s efforts to eliminate human trafficking in Malaysia.