Malaysia Economic Growth and Its Human Trafficking Issue

Jul 27, 2013 | Updated Sep 26, 2013

Despite Malaysia's recent increase in prosperity, the country remains plagued by thousands of human trafficking cases annually. A lack of opportunity for economic growth in neighboring countries leads many individuals to join criminal networks that "traffic young girls and women for sexual exploitation." Inconsistent laws and incomplete information make these networks difficult to interrupt. Malaysia's location near the ocean, as well as "its borders with Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, make the country geographically strategic for human trafficking transactions." Malaysia is both a destination for and a country through which many sex trafficking victims must pass.

The majority of trafficking victims are foreign workers who migrate willingly to Malaysia from Indonesia, Mongolia, Nepal, India, Thailand, China, the Philippines, Burma, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam in search of greater economic opportunities, some of whom subsequently encounter forced labor or debt bondage at the hands of their employers.

In my recent trip to Malaysia I had the opportunity to meet one of the victims of such trafficking who is currently living in Kuala Lumpur. 20-year-old Nathalie moved to Kuala Lumpur from Mongolia at age 12 in order to find a better life following a tragic accident during which both of her parents were killed. Nathalie was left with her gravely ill grandmother, and with nowhere to turn she decided to seek opportunity and education with a family friend who offered to take her to Kuala Lumpur.

Upon her arrival, Nathalie realized that her life had taken a turn for the worse. She was introduced to another woman who took her from her family friend and put her in a house with multiple other girls, some as young as nine years old. There she was told she must obey the instructions of her "teacher," a woman who trained her how to dance and perform sexual acts to please a man.

Nathalie lived a miserable life in this house for years sexually pleasing primarily middle-aged white males. She was almost entirely under the control of her teacher, who controlled Nathalie's basic needs such as food intake and weight. Unfortunately, Nathalie's story is just one of the thousands of stories about young women and girls who suffer as sex slaves in the country.

In recent years Malaysia has been making some notably progressive steps towards protecting the victims of trafficking, however, these steps have not yet resulted in tangible change. The Malaysian government has made positive steps by increasing the number of investigations of trafficking cases, filing more charges against traffickers, increasing the number of officials who are trained about the 2007 anti-trafficking laws, opening more shelters for victims and launching a national action plan on trafficking for the next five years.

Experts agree, however, that the government needs to implement more stringent policies in order to make more lasting changes. According to the Department of State, in 2010 Malaysia was on the Tier 2 Watch List for the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking of Persons, which means that the government of Malaysia does not fully comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act's minimum standards. As of yet the Malaysian government has not replaced a 2006 law that "authorizes Malaysian employers to confiscate and hold the passports of domestic employees." In addition, "Malaysian immigration authorities are engaged in selling refugees to traffickers." For these authorities, the appeal of immediate economic gain outweighs their concern about trafficked individuals.

Human Rights Watch suggests that Malaysia combat trafficking by taking more time to train police and immigration officials to screen for cases of domestic worker abuse and human trafficking. Additionally, they suggest that the country revise the Immigration Act and other legislation focused on border control to ensure that there is a separate legal framework for dealing specifically with human trafficking and people smuggling.

In order to prevent victims from being forced into trafficking, the Milla Project argues that Malaysia and its surrounding countries will need to create more economic opportunities for their citizens. Human trafficking is hugely profitable, and joining a crime syndicate appeals to impoverished workers who are in desperate need of work. In order to facilitate economic opportunity for women who would otherwise be susceptible to being lured into human trafficking rings, the Malaysian government should look at organizations such as Second Chance Employment Services as examples. The goal of Second Chance Employment Services is to ensure that women are no longer financially dependent on their abusers by providing them with the resources they need to have a meaningful career. Until individuals in Malaysia have this kind of financial security, both victims and criminals will be more likely to turn to human trafficking networks that promise easy work.