The government decreased protection efforts. In 2018, the government identified 1,305 potential victims and confirmed 97 victims, a significant decrease compared to 2,224 potential and 721 confirmed victims in 2017, and 3,411 potential and 1,558 confirmed victims in 2016. Of the 97 confirmed victims in 2018, 63 were women, approximately the same number of women victims confirmed in 2018; however, there was a marked decrease in the number of confirmed male and child victims in 2018 (34) compared with 2017 (659). The government explained the continued decrease in the number of victims identified as a result of a reduction in the use of large-scale police raids of suspected commercial sex establishments and instead focused on investigations against forced labor, the larger trafficking problem in Malaysia. The government reported each of the five law enforcement agencies followed agency-specific standard operating procedures (SOPs) to identify trafficking victims. However, observers reported the SOPs lacked basic indicators that would allow officials to proactively and accurately identify trafficking victims and instead focused on the role and responsibility of the officer once a victim was referred to law enforcement. The government’s identification of labor trafficking cases relied on reports of abuse from embassies representing foreign workers and other informants and labor inspections in response to workers’ complaints of non-payment of wages and other violations. NGOs relayed that authorities treated many of the victims identified during police or immigration raids like criminals. NGOs also believed this treatment contributed to the government’s insufficient identification of victims; the raid-environment was not conducive to victims speaking candidly to law enforcement and due to the lack of basic indicators of trafficking, NGOs reported officials arrested and charged some victims for immigration violations instead of identifying them as trafficking victims.
The Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development (MOWFCD) continued to fund and operate seven shelters specifically to house victims of trafficking—four for women, one for men, and two for children. During the reporting period, MOWFCD established an additional shelter for adult female trafficking victims, although it had not yet served victims. The government housed victims in these shelters as part of a court-ordered 21-day interim protection order (for potential trafficking victims) or a subsequent 90-day protection order (for certified trafficking victims). In practice, the government renewed the protection order for certified victims, which required their stay in a shelter, until the completion of the trial associated with their case; some victims remained in the shelters for up to six months. In the previous reporting period, the government took steps to reduce government shelter overcrowding by providing funding and referring victims to three NGO-run shelters; however, in July 2018, the government—a new administration since May 2018—suspended the funding in order to review the program and did not reestablish it by the end of the reporting period. Because of the reduction in the number of identified victims, no government shelter was over capacity.
In March 2019, the government established a pilot program to provide two victim assistance specialists to guide victims from their identification, through the judicial process, and finally to repatriation in their home country; at the end of the reporting period the program had yet to begin working with victims. The government continued to provide basic services for all victims staying in its shelters, including food, medical care, social and religious activities, and security. NGOs reported medical screening was inadequate for victims upon arrival to government shelters and shelters lacked full access to reproductive health and dental services. Shelters did not have medical staff on site and accessing medical care required shelter staff to coordinate transportation and a chaperone. NGOs provided some victim rehabilitation services, including medical care and counseling, without government-allocated funding; however, NGOs continued to express difficulty maintaining adequate resources and staffing levels to provide consistent services for victims. Due to the lack of available and adequate interpretation services, some victims did not understand shelter rules and their rights during the judicial process, contributing to stress and leading some victims to request repatriation instead of participating in prosecutions. During the reporting period, MOWFCD translated shelter rules and regulations in to five languages and disseminated them to several, but not all, of its shelters. The government reported it allotted each victim 35 Malaysian ringgit (RM) ($8.50) to make telephone calls each month; however, in practice this amounted to one or two calls supervised by shelter staff. Some government shelters were not able to track phone costs per victim and instead instituted one 10 minute international phone call per month while others only allowed calls within Malaysia. The government continued to give monthly allowance payments of 127 RM ($31) to victims for incidental expenditures; during the reporting period, 184 victims received a total of 73,550 RM ($17,810). The government did not always disburse the funds on a monthly basis; some victims received the allowance as a lump sum when they repatriated home.
The government amended the anti-trafficking law in 2015 to allow victims to work and move freely in and out of government facilities, pending a security risk assessment, medical screening, and mental health evaluation. Of the 97 confirmed victims, the government issued 68 special immigration passes that authorized freedom of movement, compared to 91 passes for 721 confirmed victims in 2017. At the end of the previous reporting period, the government announced a policy to ensure victims received a special immigration pass before the end of their 21-day interim protection order. While the majority of confirmed victims received this pass, the government continued to lack enough qualified mental health counselors to conduct the required psycho-social evaluation during the appointed timeframe. Additionally, in practice, a victim’s freedom of movement remained restricted to chaperoned trips. The government did not issue any work visas to victims during the reporting period, compared to two in 2017 and six in 2016. Shelter staff continued to provide opportunities for victims to engage in handicrafts and other income-generating activities in the shelter. In February 2019, the government began offering technical and vocational training for shelter residents in the Kuala Lumpur women’s shelter and the Malacca men’s shelter; 21 victims (13 women and eight men) participated in training ranging from English-language classes to vocational courses in sewing and car repair.
As in past years, many identified victims preferred to return immediately to their home countries. Although the law permitted victims to testify remotely, authorities generally expected victims to remain in-country pending trial proceedings. The reluctance of victims to stay in Malaysia and provide such testimony reportedly stemmed from a desire to avoid protracted criminal proceedings, interest to quickly rejoin the workforce, unappealing shelter and work conditions, and intimidation from traffickers. For victims who participated in court proceedings, prosecutors noted they were instructed to request restitution in each case; in 2018, prosecutors requested restitution in 29 cases, compared with three in 2017, and secured 80,000 RM ($19,370). The government did not provide legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims to countries where they may face hardship or retribution. The government worked with foreign diplomatic missions to fund and provide repatriation assistance for victims to return to their countries of origin.