Malaysia (Tier 2 Watch List)

The Government of Malaysia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so.  The government made key achievements during the reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, if any, on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Malaysia was upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List.  These achievements included initiating more trafficking investigations; prosecuting and convicting more traffickers; and prosecuting complicit officials.  The government also identified more victims; initiated efforts and provided funding to raise awareness of trafficking on palm oil plantations; and increased training – including on employing a trauma-informed approach, victim identification, and amendments to the anti-trafficking law – for officials, law enforcement, and victims service providers.  The government facilitated greater freedom of movement among victims receiving services in government facilities and granted more victims permission to work; it also increased funding for victim shelters.  Despite these achievements, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas.  The government did not sufficiently criminally prosecute labor traffickers in the palm oil sector or the disposable glove manufacturing industry.  The government did not systematically implement SOPs countrywide to proactively identify victims, including forced labor victims, during law enforcement raids or among vulnerable populations with whom authorities came in contact.  Due to a lack of formal identification procedures, authorities likely detained, arrested, and deported some unidentified trafficking victims.  Delays in prosecution, insufficient interagency coordination, and inadequate services for victims discouraged foreign victims from remaining in Malaysia to participate in criminal proceedings and continued to hinder successful anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts.

  • Increase efforts to identify trafficking victims, including victims of labor trafficking, among vulnerable populations, including household workers and workers in the palm oil and disposable glove manufacturing sectors.
  • Train officials, including police, labor inspectors, and immigration officials, on SOPs for victim identification that includes information on trafficking indicators.
  • Increase efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking cases – as distinct from migrant smuggling – including those involving complicit officials and forced labor crimes.
  • Expand labor protections for domestic workers and investigate allegations of domestic worker abuse.
  • Make public the results of investigations involving corrupt officials to increase transparency and deterrence and hold officials criminally accountable.
  • Increase law enforcement capacity to investigate and prosecute trafficking cases, including by improving interagency coordination.
  • Expand the mechanism to provide interpretation services for victims.
  • Improve case management and communication with trafficking victims, including the consistent request and use of interpreters and the Victim Assistance Specialist program.
  • Expand efforts to inform migrant workers of their rights under Malaysian labor laws – including their right to maintain access to their passports at any time – and their options for legal recourse to exploitation.
  • Include language on protections for foreign workers in model contracts and bilateral MOUs with labor source countries.
  • Reduce prosecution delays, including by providing improved guidance to prosecutors on pursuing trafficking charges, and increase judicial familiarity with the full range of trafficking crimes, particularly forced labor.
  • Expand cooperation with NGOs, including through financial or in-kind support to NGOs to provide some victim rehabilitation services.
  • Eliminate recruitment or placement fees charged to workers by recruiters and ensure any recruitment fees are paid by employers.
  • Increase the number of trafficking victims who obtain approval for freedom of movement from shelters, expand freedom of movement to include unchaperoned movement, and increase victims’ access to communication with people outside shelter facilities.
  • Increase efforts to identify trafficking victims among People’s Republic of China (PRC) workers on PRC government-affiliated infrastructure projects.

The government increased law enforcement efforts.  The 2007 Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (ATIPSOM) Act, as amended, criminalized labor trafficking and sex trafficking and prescribed punishments of three to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine, which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious offenses, such as rape.  Law enforcement officers continued to conflate human trafficking and migrant smuggling, which impeded overall anti-trafficking law enforcement and victim identification efforts.  An amendment to the Employment Act of 1955 took effect on January 1, 2023, which added a provision criminalizing forced labor offenses by employers used threats of intimidation, restriction of movement, or fraud to induce labor or services.  The law prescribed penalties of up to two years’ imprisonment, a fine of 100,000 Malaysian ringgit (RM) ($22,730), or both.  Although the amendment created an additional avenue to prosecute labor trafficking crimes, the penalties available under the law were significantly lower than those available under the ATIPSOM Act.

Law enforcement initiated 137 trafficking investigations – 31 for sex trafficking, 95 for labor trafficking, and nine for unspecified forms of trafficking – and continued 109 investigations – 40 for sex trafficking, 49 for labor trafficking, and 20 for unspecified forms of trafficking – from the previous report period.  This was an increase from initiating 108 trafficking investigations in the previous reporting period.  The Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) initiated prosecutions for 126 alleged traffickers (17 sex traffickers, 105 labor traffickers, and four individuals for unspecified forms of trafficking); the government did not provide comparative data in the previous reporting period.  The AGC prosecuted 86 of the 126 alleged traffickers under the ATIPSOM Act, and 40 alleged traffickers under non-trafficking laws (23 under the Immigration Act, 12 under the Penal Code, four under the Passport Act, and one under the Private Employment Agencies Act), compared with 31 traffickers prosecuted under ATIPSOM in the previous reporting period.  Courts convicted 32 traffickers – 18 for sex trafficking and 14 for forced labor – under the ATIPSOM Act, Immigration Act, the Penal Code, and Employment Act; this was an increase from 20 traffickers convicted in the previous reporting period – 13 for sex trafficking and seven for forced labor.  The government data may include prosecutions that do not amount to trafficking under the international law definition.  The government previously reported 55 convictions in the previous reporting period, but did not disaggregate migrant smuggling and human trafficking; however, it improved its data management and reporting in the current reporting period and provided disaggregated data.  Courts sentenced traffickers to penalties ranging from four to 14 years’ imprisonment under ATIPSOM and to seven years’ imprisonment under the Penal Code; courts may have sentenced some traffickers convicted under non-trafficking laws to less than one year’s imprisonment.  It also awarded restitution to victims ranging from 10,000 to 12,000 RM ($2,270 to $2,730) under the Immigration Act, 2,000 RM ($455) under the Penal Code, and 10,000 to 12,000 RM ($2,270 to $2,730) under the Employment Act.  Courts convicted 13 individuals for withholding the passports of employees under the Passport Act of 1966 – compared with five individuals from the previous reporting period – but did not report whether it investigated, prosecuted, or convicted these individuals for trafficking crimes.  Officials did not consistently understand the definition of trafficking and continued to conflate human trafficking and migrant smuggling, which impeded some anti-trafficking law enforcement and victim identification efforts.  The government sometimes pursued cases of forced labor as disparate labor law violations instead of criminal cases of trafficking or failed to investigate them at all.  The government cooperated with Bangladesh, Thailand, and the United States on trafficking cases, including child trafficking cases.  In October 2022, the Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) coordinated with counterparts in Thailand to investigate and arrest five alleged traffickers exploiting victims in sex trafficking in the Klang Valley region; the RMP facilitated the transfer of three arrested Thai citizens to Thailand.  The government did not adequately address or criminally pursue credible allegations of labor trafficking in the disposable glove manufacturing and palm oil production sectors.

Corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action.  The government arrested and initiated prosecutions of four allegedly complicit government officials under the ATIPSOM Act; the prosecutions were ongoing at the end of the reporting period.  In September 2022, authorities arrested a police officer under Section 14 of ATIPSOM for abusing a domestic worker and causing severe injuries; the prosecution was ongoing at the end of the reporting period.  That same month, courts acquitted a former home affairs minister of 40 counts of corruption for allegedly receiving payment for visa issuance contracts, filed in 2018, citing a lack of evidence.  The government reported prosecuting two officials for trafficking-related activities arrested during the previous reporting period for involvement in trafficking-related crimes; the prosecutions were ongoing at the end of the reporting period.  The Immigration Department investigated and arrested 40 officials on trafficking-related charges, resulting in 22 officials fired; one suspended from duty; four removed from duty; two resigned; six found not at fault; three under continuing investigation; and one prosecuted for migrant smuggling under the ATIPSOM Act at the end of the reporting period.  However, insufficient evidence collection hindered bringing complicit officials to justice, and authorities only transferred or demoted them, allowing impunity for complicity in human trafficking crimes to persist.  The government finalized and released an inquiry report (initiated in 2019) on abandoned migrant camps and mass graves containing migrants and victims of trafficking discovered in Malaysia along the Thai-Malaysia border in 2015; the report included 15 recommendations to improve migrant worker protections, Thai-Malaysian cooperation, and anti-trafficking training, and attributed the trafficking and migrant smuggling crimes to foreign criminal syndicates.  NGOs criticized the report for excluding local corruption in Malaysia as a contributing factor.

The RMP served as the lead enforcement agency and had a specialized anti-trafficking unit; the Ministry of Human Resources’ Labor Department also had a specialized trafficking enforcement team.  Anti-trafficking law enforcement officials lacked sufficient resources to carry out their mandates.  Malaysia’s criminal justice system continued to suffer resource constraints and uneven application of investigative and prosecutorial standards, which prevented judicial authorities from following through on trafficking cases at times.  Although the government continued to operate an interagency anti-trafficking law enforcement task force under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Council (MAPO council), coordination among agencies remained inadequate.  Only two judges in the country specialized in the anti-trafficking law.  The government continued to operate one specialized trafficking court in Selangor, but it did not implement plans to expand specialized trafficking courts around the country.  The government increased trainings for law enforcement officers, public prosecutors, and other government officials on anti-trafficking topics, and produced an updated version of the National Guidelines on Human Trafficking Indicators (NGHTI).  The government also trained law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and protections officers, and specialized anti-trafficking judges and magistrates on the new amendment to the ATIPSOM Act.

The government maintained mixed protection efforts.  The government identified 180 confirmed trafficking victims – 36 exploited in sex trafficking and 144 exploited in forced labor – among 510 potential victims identified, compared with 96 confirmed victims among 373 potential victims in the previous reporting period.  Of the 180 confirmed victims, traffickers exploited 23 women and seven girls in sex trafficking, including one victim with disabilities, and 58 women, 74 men, seven girls, and five boys in forced labor.  Demographic information was not reported for six victims. The government had victim identification SOPs – formally adopted in April 2020 – for law enforcement to identify victims; however, the government did not systematically implement these SOPs nationwide, especially in rural areas and in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak.  The government continued to conduct large-scale police raids of suspected commercial sex establishments and factories suspected of forced labor and, according to NGOs, large-scale operations to detect undocumented migrants, but did not report identifying any victims from these raids.  Officials often relied on victims of labor trafficking to self-identify.  The government also did not adequately screen asylum-seekers and refugees for trafficking indicators.  Due to officials’ inconsistent use of victim identification SOPs, authorities may have detained, arrested, and deported some unidentified trafficking victims and prevented some foreign and domestic victims of trafficking victims from receiving protection services.  NGOs continued to report authorities treated potential victims identified during police or immigration raids as criminals; authorities may have traumatized victims during raids and as a result victims likely declined to speak with law enforcement.

The government granted all 180 certified victims with full protection orders in accordance with the law and provided them housing in government-operated or -funded shelters; this compared with 96 certified victims in the previous reporting period who received full protection orders and shelter.  Potential victims could also receive shelter resources.  Authorities provided victims with food; medical care; social, religious, and income-generating activities; security; and a stipend – either in monthly allocations or a lump-sum – of 120 RM ($27) for incidental expenditures.  The law required foreign victims to remain in government shelters for the duration of their protection orders; domestic victims could stay with family members or a guardian.  The government typically renewed protection orders for certified victims until the completion of the trial associated with their case; this resulted in some victims remaining in the shelters for more than six months.  NGOs reported investigative authorities sometimes did not allow sufficient time to appropriately interview potential victims in shelters to certify them as victims and grant 90-day protection orders, which prevented some victims from obtaining protection services.  Authorities were less likely to provide protection orders for undocumented foreign victims.

The Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development (MWFCD) funded shelters for trafficking victims.  The government operated eight shelters – five for women, one for men, one for girls, and one for boys – and provided funding for two NGO-run shelters – both for women and children; however, shelters were not available in parts of the country, which may have discouraged investigative officers from filing trafficking cases in those regions.  During the reporting period, shelter staff relocated a transgender woman survivor from a men’s shelter to a private home for safety.  MWFCD established a “transit center” in Sarawak to temporarily provide shelter for victims in March 2023 while plans to establish a permanent shelter there continued; however, the government did not report placing victims at the temporary shelter by the end of the reporting period.  MAPO approved an NGO proposal for a “one-stop shop” for authorities to bring victims immediately upon leaving their trafficking situation and provide temporary shelter, a health screening, interpretation, and psychosocial counseling to support better victim protections and evidence collection, including victim statements.  The first center reported providing services to 25 victims since it opened in December 2022.  The government implemented an SOP developed in the previous reporting period by MWFCD and civil society for protection officers and shelter staff on victim-centered and trauma-informed approaches when delivering services to victims.  In collaboration with an NGO, MWFCD developed a kit for victims admitted to shelters that included hygiene products, personal items, and informational materials presented in seven languages on trafficking and migrant worker rights.  The government allocated 806,000 RM ($183,180) for the two NGO-operated shelters, an increase from 785,000 RM ($178,410) in 2021.  NGO-operated government shelters continued to suffer staffing shortages and struggled to maintain adequate resources to consistently provide services, including interpreters, medical staff, and mental health counselors.  Although the government continued to place translated shelter rules and regulations in five languages in government shelters, language barriers continued to affect the government’s victim services in shelters and during the judicial process, as it did not have an institutionalized way to ensure timely and accurate communication with potential trafficking victims who did not speak Bahasa Malaysia or English.  Shelter staff facilitated victims’ communication with family members, including in other countries.  Authorities did not permit foreign victims to leave shelters unless immigration authorities granted them a freedom of movement pass; however, the government was less likely to approve these passes for women sex trafficking victims.  Although the government reported freedom of movement passes allowed victims to leave the shelters unchaperoned, in practice, a victim’s movement outside of shelters often remained restricted to chaperoned trips.  NGOs reported these shelter conditions resulted in victims feeling as though they were detained.  Civil society reported some law enforcement officials advised victims waiting for transition to official shelter to “change their story” in an attempt to expedite the transfer.  The government issued 172 freedom of movement passes to potential and confirmed victims in 2022, an increase from the 102 passes issued in 2021.  The government granted 25 victims continued permission to work, an increase from the 11 work visas granted in the previous reporting period.

The government reported 180 victims provided statements to authorities during investigations, 89 of whom participated as witnesses during prosecution.  The government did not report this data in the previous reporting period; however, it reported 55 victims participated in 110 investigations or prosecutions in 2021.  A 2014 directive required prosecutors to meet with victims at least two weeks prior to the start of a trial to prepare victims to record their statements and to help them understand the judicial process.  Prosecutors reported they engaged with victims; however, limited availability of interpretation services made effective communication difficult.  Observers noted prosecutors, shelter staff, and law enforcement underutilized interpretation services, likely due to long wait times when coordinating with interpreters’ availability.  NGOs reported cases in which public prosecutors failed to interview victims for protection orders.  The MAPO Council maintained a roster of 46 volunteer interpreters, who spoke a total of 18 languages and received anti-trafficking training from NGOs, to be available for victims who participated in investigations or prosecutions.  Despite the availability of interpreters, observers reported victims still did not fully understand their rights during the judicial process, contributing to stress and reluctance to participate in investigations and prosecutions, particularly in rural areas where victim services were harder to access.  Furthermore, limited shelter capacity in northern Malaysia hindered the ability of prosecutors there to meet with victims who were relocated to Kuala Lumpur for services.  Some foreign victims reported a reluctance to stay in Malaysia to participate in prosecutions due to fears of extended shelter stays, unappealing shelter conditions, and intimidation from traffickers; some victims further reported authorities treated them as criminals.  Although the law permitted victims to testify remotely, authorities generally expected victims to remain in-country pending trial proceedings.  The 2021 amendment to the trafficking law granted magistrates the authority to extend protection orders for victims to record testimony, which could be used in lieu of in-person testimony, thereby allowing a foreign victim to return to their home country ahead of a trial; the government did not report any foreign victims using this option during the reporting period.  Prosecutors requested restitution in eight cases involving labor trafficking victims who participated in court proceedings and secured 149,535 RM ($33,990), compared with $25,000 secured for 13 cases in 2022.  The government did not report providing restitution for sex trafficking victims.  Labor trafficking victims could file civil suits against their employers to obtain compensation or recoup unpaid wages; however, lengthy court processes deterred victims from filing suits.  The MAPO council discontinued its 12-month pilot project – initiated in 2021 – to assess the government’s process for victims of labor trafficking to seek legal redress and to study the feasibility of an alternative referral system for labor trafficking cases.

The government had eight Victim Assistance Specialists who drafted reports for investigating officers, advocated for victims’ needs, facilitated concerns to law enforcement, and delivered trauma-informed care to trafficking victims.  The number of specialists was insufficient to adequately support the number of victims, and most specialists were located in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor.  NGOs reported cases of authorities not allowing the specialists to join law enforcement during investigations or raids, which harmed law enforcement’s ability to appropriately screen for and identify victims.  Specialists could only assist victims at the discretion of the investigating officers or Deputy Public Prosecutors.  The specialists worked with 25 foreign victims, a decrease from assisting 66 victims in 2021.  Reports of Malaysians exploited abroad in cyber scam operations increased during the reporting period.  The government worked with foreign diplomatic missions to fund and provide repatriation assistance for victims to return to their home countries; however, NGOs reported the government did not provide services to Malaysian victims identified abroad in cyber scam operations, did not file reports, and denied jurisdictional responsibility for cases, deferring victims to Interpol.  Many confirmed foreign victims preferred to return immediately to their home countries.  In April 2022, the media reported the government engaged with Cambodian law enforcement to request the release of Malaysian victims forcibly held on a compound and exploited in forced labor in cyber scam operations.  In October 2022, an NGO reported Malaysian victims exploited in forced labor in cyber scams in Laos were physically abused if they did not meet unrealistic quotas or if they attempted to escape; they further estimated the number of Malaysian victims to be in the hundreds.  In December 2022, the media reported traffickers lured eight Malaysians with fraudulent job offers to the United Arab Emirates, and, upon arrival, took their phones and passports and exploited the victims in forced labor in an online gambling scheme.  The Malaysia consulate in Dubai collaborated with the Emirati government and an NGO to facilitate the victims’ repatriation after the victims escaped and reported to local law enforcement in Dubai.  The government did not provide legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims to countries where they may face hardship or retribution.  The law required officials to refer foreign victims without legal residence in Malaysia to immigration authorities for repatriation upon the expiration of their protection order.

The government increased efforts to prevent trafficking.  The MAPO council – which included five enforcement bodies, other government entities, and four NGOs – met twice and coordinated interagency anti-trafficking efforts to implement the government’s 2021-2025 anti-trafficking NAP.  The government maintained the allocated budget of 4 million RM ($909,090) to operate the MAPO council secretariat.  NGOs stated the government did not provide sufficient funding for the MAPO council, hindering the government’s anti-trafficking efforts.  The government did not have a central database to track or compile nationwide anti-trafficking law enforcement activities, victim identification statistics, or data on trafficking trends; individual ministries compiled anti-trafficking statistics, which they typically did not share widely with other ministries or with the public.  However, MAPO and the Ministry of Home Affairs’ information technology division initiated the development of an integrated data system to collect all trafficking data; the system was pending implementation at the end of the reporting period.  The government established a working group comprised of MAPO officials and NGO consultants to update the NGHTI, which developed a general rapid-screening checklist for trafficking indicators; screening checklists specific to trafficking in a variety of sectors, including domestic work and maritime industries; and a guide on evidence collection.  Trainings on these resources were implemented during the reporting period.  The working group also initiated the development of an online application version of the NGHTI, but it was not operational by the end of the reporting period.

The government continued its efforts to raise public awareness of trafficking.  It broadcast announcements and conducted interviews on television and national radio networks.  The government also used billboards, websites, and brochures to raise awareness in multiple languages.  Labor officials posted signage at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in multiple languages to educate foreign workers about their rights in Malaysia.  The Department of Labor executed a radio campaign to promote a program for migrants to report labor abuses.  The government hosted public sessions for foreign workers in the palm oil industry about their legal rights and for employers on indicators of forced labor.  The government continued to operate an anti-trafficking hotline; however, hotline operators lacked sufficient training in trafficking.  Hotline calls resulted in the initiation of 14 investigations compared to seven in the previous reporting period; the government did not report identifying any victims from hotline calls.  MOHR managed a smartphone app for workers, including migrant workers, to file labor complaints; MOHR received 8,500 complaints via the app and resolved 7,906 cases, while 142 cases remained pending at the end of the reporting period.  The government did not report if inspectors identified any of these cases as labor trafficking.  The government conducted an assessment of human trafficking awareness and efficacy of public awareness campaigns; it reported most respondents understood human trafficking and migrant smuggling and determined social media was the most effective platform to share information.  In collaboration with an NGO, the government established a cyber tool, available in six languages, that shared anti-trafficking information and allowed victims to report cases to law enforcement officials; however, it did not report the number of communications, nor did it identify any victims of trafficking.  Observers noted the government did not widely publicize the hotline and cyber tool, which may have prevented victims from accessing help, and law enforcement response to reports was either inadequate or lacking entirely.

The government continued to enforce its ban of Malaysia-based outsourcing companies, which often used practices that perpetuated debt-based coercion among migrant workers.  The government’s Private Employment Agency Act (PEAA) required all private recruitment agencies to secure a license with the Ministry of Human Resources to recruit foreign workers, including domestic workers.  The PEAA capped employee-paid “placement” or recruitment fees at 25 percent of the first month’s basic wages for Malaysian workers employed within or outside of Malaysia and one month’s basic wages for non-citizens.  The law did not define what entailed a “placement fee,” and authorities did not adequately enforce this rule; the majority of migrant workers in Malaysia paid much higher fees to recruitment agents, including in their home country, which contributed to the workers’ vulnerability to debt-based coercion.  The government also mandated employers pay the foreign worker levy, a one-time cost paid to the government for any non-Malaysian workers the company hired, instead of forcing workers to bear the cost.  The government reported prosecuting four employment agencies and one individual under the PEAA for recruitment activity without a license.  Labor courts ordered offenders to pay a total of 31,000 ($7,050) in fines.  The government continued to use an online application system for employers to renew their workers’ temporary work permits without using a broker.  In March 2022, the government ratified the ILO Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labor Convention to combat forced labor, and in September 2022, it ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).  In April 2022, the government signed an updated MOU with the Indonesian government on the recruitment of domestic workers.  Malaysian employment law continued to exclude domestic workers from a number of protections against exploitation, including maximum working hours and the country’s minimum wage.

Civil society observers noted the government did not adequately inform migrant workers of their rights and Malaysian labor regulations.  The government reported it employed 70 labor inspectors who focused on labor trafficking for the entire country – an increase from the 44 inspectors employed in the previous reporting period; the government assigned 22 of these inspectors to peninsular Malaysia, 22 to Sarawak, and 26 to Sabah, where a large number of Malaysia’s palm oil plantations were located.  The lack of adequate resources, including for additional labor inspectors, hindered the government’s efforts to adequately identify labor trafficking and enforce the prohibition on employer-perpetrated passport retention, which remained widespread.  The government conducted 61,513  labor inspections during the reporting period, an increase from 27,836 inspections in the previous year.  During the current reporting period, labor courts resolved 14,440 labor disputes, ordered employers to provide workers back wages amounting to 25.9 million RM ($5.89 million), and levied fines against  employers who violated labor laws in the amount of 5.35 million RM ($1.22 million); this compared with 7,515 labor disputes resolved, 21.6 million RM ($4.91 million) in back wages ordered to workers, and 6.28 million RM ($1.43 million) in fines levied against employers in 2021.  The government allocated funds and conducted six learning sessions on forced labor and child labor indicators on palm oil estates to plantation management personnel in Sarawak and peninsular Malaysia.  The government began developing a national framework on Industry Environmental, Social, and Governance (i-ESG) for the manufacturing sector to align it with international standards on recruitment and combating forced labor; the project remained ongoing at the end of the reporting period.

Malaysian birth registration policies have left more than an estimated 500,000 individuals – including children – stateless and therefore unable to access some government services, including legal employment and public schools, increasing their vulnerability to trafficking.  The law did not permit the government to grant stateless persons asylum or refugee status and left more than 183,000 refugee-status-seekers and asylum-seekers in Malaysia, including more than 104,000 Rohingya, unable to obtain legal employment, which increased their vulnerability to exploitation.  The Sabah state legislature engaged in plans to create temporary shelters for stateless children and established the first one in February 2023.  The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts.


 As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Malaysia, and traffickers exploit victims from Malaysia abroad.  The majority of victims are among the estimated 1.5 million documented and an even greater number of undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia.  Foreign workers constitute approximately 20 percent of the Malaysian workforce and typically migrate voluntarily – often through irregular channels – from Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, the PRC, India, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.  More than one-third of all foreign workers are employed in the manufacturing sector, with others employed in construction, agriculture, and domestic work.  Employers, employment agents, and illegal sub-agents exploit some migrants in labor trafficking primarily through debt-based coercion when workers are unable to pay the fees for recruitment and associated travel.  Some agents in labor-sending countries impose onerous fees on workers before they arrive in Malaysia, and Malaysian agents administer additional fees after arrival – in some cases leading to forced labor through debt-based coercion.  Large organized crime syndicates are responsible for some instances of trafficking.  Employers utilize practices indicative of forced labor, such as restrictions on movement, violating contracts, wage fraud, assault, threats of deportation, the imposition of significant debts, and passport retention – which remained widespread – to exploit some migrant workers in labor trafficking on palm oil and agricultural plantations; at construction sites; in the electronics, garment, and rubber-product industries; and in homes as domestic workers.  Malaysian law allows employers to hold workers’ passports with the workers’ permission, but it is difficult to determine if traffickers have coerced the workers; some employers retain the passports to prevent workers from changing jobs.  According to the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, eight of every 1,000 palm oil plantation workers were in situations of forced labor, with the prevalence rate considerably higher in Sarawak than in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah.  Previously, reports have indicated documented multiple indicators of forced labor associated with the production of palm oil in Malaysia, including coercive practices such as threats, violence, lack of clarity of employment terms and conditions, dependency on the employer, lack of protection by police, debt bondage, high recruitment fees, and involuntary overtime.  As a primary shareholder, the government owned 69.9 percent of public shares of one of the largest palm oil companies in the world during the reporting period.  Traffickers use large smuggling debts incurred by refugees to subject them to debt-based coercion.  PRC nationals working for PRC state-affiliated construction projects in Malaysia are vulnerable to forced labor.

Traffickers recruit some young foreign women and girls – mainly from Southeast Asia, although also recently from Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda – ostensibly for legal work in Malaysian restaurants, hotels, and beauty salons, or for brokered marriages, but instead exploit them in sex trafficking.  Refugees, asylum-seekers, and stateless individuals who lack the ability to obtain legal employment in Malaysia are also vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking.  Traffickers use false or fraudulent offers of assistance to recruit Rohingya asylum-seekers out of refugee camps in Bangladesh and Indonesia to exploit them in Malaysia, including women and girls coerced to engage in commercial sex.  Traffickers also exploit some men and children, including Malaysians, in commercial sex.  The Malaysian government has reported since 2020 that children are vulnerable to online sexual exploitation, including some instances of child sex trafficking.  Traffickers exploit Malaysian orphans and children from refugee communities in forced begging.  Traffickers increasingly exploit Malaysian women and children in forced labor.  Stateless children in Sabah were especially at risk of forced labor in palm oil production, service industries, and in forced begging.  Media and NGOs report traffickers use online and app-based scams with promises of high-paying jobs to lure young male and female Malaysians abroad, primarily to Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, and exploit them in forced labor in cyber scam operations, including fraudulent cryptocurrency, online gambling, and phone call operations, or sell them to criminal gangs for forced criminality and further exploitation.  Some Indonesian workers transit Malaysia legally enroute to Middle Eastern countries, where traffickers exploit some in forced labor.

Ongoing corruption related to processes for foreign nationals to work in Malaysia increases the cost of migration and consequently increases migrant workers’ vulnerability to trafficking through debt-based coercion.  Corrupt immigration officials facilitate trafficking by accepting bribes from brokers and smugglers at border crossings, including at airports.   Some government officials profit from bribes and direct involvement in extortion from and exploitation of migrants.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future