The government increased efforts to identify trafficking victims, but protection measures remained inadequate. Not all victims of trafficking were granted freedom of movement and the ability to work while their investigations were pending in the judicial system. The government reported law enforcement agencies followed standardized procedures to identify trafficking victims. Identification of labor trafficking cases continued to rely on reactive labor inspections in response to workers’ complaints of non-payment of wages and other violations. In 2016, the government reported identifying 3,411 potential trafficking victims, of which it confirmed 1,558 as trafficking victims, a marked increase over the 305 victims confirmed in 2015. However, enforcement agencies employed the anti-trafficking law broadly by indiscriminately labeling all foreign women during bar or massage parlor roundups as potential trafficking victims without screening for indicators. The government did not always proactively screen the vulnerable migrant worker population for indicators of trafficking, which left an unknown number of potential victims without proper care. The anti-trafficking law provides trafficking victims immunity from immigration-related offenses, such as illegal entry, unlawful presence, and possession of fraudulent travel documents. Potential trafficking victims who denied they had been subjected to trafficking or whose employers confiscated their documents were sometimes detained, deported, or charged with immigration offenses during the reporting period.
During the reporting period, the attorney general approved and the deputy prime minister enforced implementing regulations for the amendments to the anti-trafficking law. The amendments allow victims—at the discretion of the anti-trafficking council—to work and to move freely in and out of government facilities, pending a security risk assessment, medical screening, and mental health evaluation; allow the court to order convicted traffickers to pay restitution to their victims and provide an avenue for victims to bring civil suits against their abusers; expand interim protection orders from 14 to 21 days to allow for more thorough investigations; allow NGOs to serve as designated protection officers; and institutionalize a high-level anti-trafficking committee. During the reporting period, the government continued its collaboration with civil society stakeholders, most notably by co-developing a set of standard operating procedures for granting freedom of movement for victims, which was used to approve applications for freedom of movement and work permits. Several operational issues remained, however, including limitations on certain nationalities working in specific sectors; accountability for providing security risk assessments, psychological evaluations, and medical screenings; and a lack of trained mental health professionals to administer them. Near the end of the reporting period, the government expanded the pool of trained counselors—from three to 146—available to conduct psychological evaluations by authorizing counselors working with domestic abuse victims and other vulnerable populations to also evaluate trafficking victims.
Of the 1,558 victims identified, authorities completed 106 risk assessments to consider whether to grant freedom of movement; authorities denied 60 victims freedom of movement based on alleged medical or security concerns. The medical screenings were conducted by trained physicians. During the reporting period, the government issued six work visas to trafficking victims—compared to four issued the previous year. The government authorized freedom of movement for an additional 40 foreign victims, but delays in obtaining passports from victims’ respective embassies stymied the issuance process of special immigration passes, which are prerequisite for freedom of movement. Ultimately, the government issued 12 special immigration passes during the reporting period. The remaining 28 victims awaited their passports at the end of the reporting period or decided to return to their home countries as soon as their passports were ready. Malaysian officials continued to streamline the normally arduous administrative processes for linking victims interested in employment with a luxury hotel chain by waiving some requirements for new job applicants, focusing mostly on the risk assessment process. However, the remaining six eligible participants declined to participate in the employment program, citing preferences to return to their respective countries of origin or dissatisfaction with the offered salary, which was significantly above the minimum wage. The government commenced monthly allowance payments of 120 Malaysian ringgit (RM) ($27) to victims for incidental expenditures, and appointed 12 individuals to form the first NGO protection officer cohort.
During the year, most trafficking victims were housed in government facilities as part of a court-ordered 21-day interim protection order (for suspected trafficking victims) or a subsequent 90-day protection order (for certified trafficking victims). Some victims, however, remained in the shelters for up to six months. Shelters became severely over-crowded as increased police efforts to identify victims led to more shelter residents. For example, the largest shelter has a capacity of approximately 70 residents but occasionally housed up to two hundred individuals or more. Most victims who stayed in government shelters did so without freedom of movement or the right to work, in contravention of global best practices. As in past years, many victims preferred to immediately return to their home countries. Although the law permits victims to testify remotely, authorities generally expected victims to remain in-country pending trial proceedings. During the reporting period, many victims were unwilling to testify. The reluctance of victims to provide witness testimony reportedly stemmed from a desire to avoid protracted criminal proceedings, to return home more quickly, and bribes or intimidation from traffickers.
The Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development maintained seven facilities specifically to house trafficking victims—four for women, one for men, and two for child trafficking victims. During the reporting period, the government allocated 3.06 million RM ($682,270) to open three new trafficking shelters in the states of Kedah, Kelantan, and Sarawak. The government provided basic services for all victims staying in its facilities, including food, shelter, medical care, social and religious activities, and security; NGOs provided some victim rehabilitation and counseling services in most shelters, typically without government-allocated funding. Victims could make phone calls at least once per month, and shelter staff provided opportunities for victims to engage in handicrafts and other income-generating activities. In general, NGOs were understaffed and expressed that they had difficulty in maintaining adequate resources to provide consistent services for victims. During the reporting period, Malaysian officials provided three NGOs with 483,000 RM ($107,690) —ten times more than was provided in the previous year—to conduct various programs and activities with trafficking shelter residents, and also increased its funding allocation to 5.3 million RM ($1.18 million), up from 4.6 million RM ($1.03 million) the previous year, to the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development to operate government facilities for trafficking victims.