The government maintained protection efforts. Law enforcement agencies followed standardized procedures to identify trafficking victims. Identification of labor trafficking cases continued to rely on labor inspections in response to workers’ complaints of non-payment of wages and other violations. In 2017, the government identified 2,224 potential trafficking victims nationwide and confirmed 721 victims, compared to 3,411 potential trafficking victims and 1,558 confirmed victims in 2016. Both years represented a marked increase over the 305 victims confirmed in 2015. Enforcement agencies employed the anti-trafficking law broadly by presuming as potential trafficking victims all foreign women during bar or massage parlor roundups. The government shifted significant resources toward forced labor, compared to a previous focus primarily on sex trafficking, partially explaining the decrease in the overall number of victims identified. The government did not 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 provided trafficking victims immunity from immigration-related offenses, such as illegal entry, unlawful presence, and possession of fraudulent travel documents. The government sometimes detained, deported, or charged with immigration offenses potential victims who denied they had been subjected to trafficking or when employers confiscated their documents.
Amendments to the anti-trafficking law allowed victims to work and to move freely in and out of government facilities, pending a security risk assessment, medical screening, and mental health evaluation. Of the 721 victims identified, the government issued 91 special immigration passes that would authorize freedom of movement, compared to 12 passes in 2016. However, in practice, authorities sometimes limited movement outside the shelter to occasional trips with a chaperone, two to three times a month. The government issued two work visas to victims, compared to six issued the previous year. Despite government efforts to provide legal employment for victims, government shelter staff reported the majority of eligible participants declined to participate in the program, citing a preference to return home. The government commenced monthly allowance payments of 127 ringgits ($31) to victims for incidental expenditures, and by March 2018, 273 victims received a total of 96,320 ringgits ($23,820). The government did not disburse the funds on a monthly basis, and victims received the allowance as a lump sum when they repatriated home.
The government housed most victims 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 sometimes became temporarily over-crowded following increased police efforts to identify victims. The government took steps to reduce shelter overcrowding by providing 80 percent of the funding for three new NGO-run shelters in Kuala Lumpur, Sabah, and Penang; however, the shelters remained underutilized due to bureaucratic obstacles and authorities approved only a small number of victims for transfer to these shelters during the reporting period. 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 return immediately 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 and to quickly rejoin the informal workforce, unappealing shelter and work conditions, 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 children. During the reporting period, the government allocated 5.6 million ringgits ($1.4 million) to operate its shelters, including funds 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. After an initial 21-day period when authorities did not permit victims any communication with persons outside the shelter, victims could make a phone call once per month, and shelter staff provided opportunities for victims to engage in handicrafts and other income-generating activities. In general, NGOs expressed difficulty in maintaining adequate resources and staffing levels to provide consistent services for victims. Overall, the government tripled its funding for NGOs this year, increasing from 483,000 ringgits ($119,440) in 2016 to 1.4 million ringgits ($341,250) to conduct various programs and activities with shelter residents.