Malaysian authorities need to prosecute more human trafficking cases if they are serious about tackling the problem, NGO leaders said Tuesday as a U.S. ambassador at-large who specializes on the issue was visiting the country.
Representatives of several local NGOs voiced such concerns during a Monday night meeting in Kuala Lumpur with Susan Coppedge, the U.S. State Department’s envoy for the monitoring and combating of human trafficking, according to one of them. They also told Coppedge about their frustration over a lack of official follow-up after last year’s discovery of scores of graves in the jungles of northern Perlis state that held the remains of smuggled people.
“We feel that we can have all the laws on trafficking that we want in Malaysia, but if there is not enough implementation on the ground, nothing is going to work,” Sumitha Shaanthinni Kishna, coordinator of the Migration Working Group, one of the NGOs, told BenarNews.
“That’s what we told her, we are more concerned on what’s being implemented on the ground rather than what being put on paper.”
According to Kishna, Malaysia needs to work on protecting victims. She expressed the hope that Coppedge would convey those concerns to the Malaysian officials during her two-day visit.
Coppedge arrived in Malaysia amid complaints that the Southeast Asian nation had failed to investigate mass graves of suspected trafficking victims and prosecute the criminals who put them there.
The State Department has faced widespread criticism after it kept Malaysia, a key U.S. trading partner, off its blacklist of countries that fail to meet minimum standards against modern-day slavery, in the recently published 2016 edition of its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.
The report pointed out that graves on both sides of the Thai-Malaysia border, which contained remains of trafficked Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants, were discovered in May 2015.
“The (Malaysian) government questioned several officials after the discovery of mass graves on the Thai border, but did not prosecute any officials during the reporting period for complicity in trafficking crimes,” the report said.
The TIP report also noted that the number of investigations of potential trafficking cases decreased by 24 last year compared with 186 cases that were investigated in 2014.
After it the State Department published the report last month, it drew a rebuke from U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who questioned the credibility of Malaysia’s ranking.
“I believe that rankings must be based on an objective assessment of the minimum standards in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a country’s efforts to meet them, and the impact that government actions are having on improving the lives of trafficking victims. No other considerations should enter into it,” he said.
Lack of political will
A shortage of prosecutions proves there is a lack of political will to solve the problem of human trafficking, according to Glorene A. Das, who directs Tenaganita, a Malaysian NGO that has advocated rights for migrants and refugees for the past 25 years.
The discovery of the graves in the jungle led to the arrests of 12 policemen, who were allegedly linked to human smugglers at the Malaysia-Thailand border, but none of them have been prosecuted so far, she said.
“There were several arrests of foreign nationals, Malaysians as well as the Malaysian authorities but as of now, only one Bangladesh national has been charged and prosecuted. However, no government authorities or officials have been prosecuted,” Das told BenarNews.
“Prosecution rates continue to be dismal. It was evident that there was a lack of cooperation and coordination between the different government agencies who, incidentally, all sit as part of anti-trafficking enforcement agencies,” she added.
According to Das, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi must take responsibility for and be transparent about prosecuting all officials or Malaysian citizens involved in the mass graves, because this is long overdue.
In June, a Malaysian court sentenced a Bangladeshi man to 10 years after he pleaded guilty to three charges of human smuggling and trafficking in the area, where 106 graves believed to contain the remains of Rohingya Muslims were found in May 2015.
On Tuesday, Coppedge met with Zahid, who also serves as Malaysia’s deputy prime minister. In a statement after the meeting, his office said it had undertaken efforts to combat human trafficking.
“The deputy prime minister has expressed the country’s readiness to cooperate with the U.S. in the area of capacity building, which touches on the aspect of prosecution, conviction, including identifying individuals who are the potential victims of labor exploitation and forced labor,” the statement said.