Najib was ask to take action in the wake of a damning United States Senate report on human trafficking in Malaysia back in April 2009.
But till today nothing significant has been done and the situation is getting worse!
Police in Sabah fear that human trafficking in the state may soon spin out of control if something isn't done seriously about the growing menace. This follows, according to them, the mushrooming of suspect massage parlours, night spots and match-making agencies in Kota Kinabalu and other major cities and towns in the state “and the long, porous borders”.
“Human trafficking may be significantly linked to Sabah if it is not tackled soon,” admitted DSP Mohd Taufik Maidin at a seminar organised in Kota Kinabalu yesterday by the Sabah Women's Advisory Council (SaWAC). “Already now there are escort services and guest relations officers (GROs) available as a cover. This puts Sabah in the right spot for such crimes.
Taufik heads the Gambling, Gangsterism and Prostitution Unit within the Sabah Police CID.
Taufik disclosed that Sabah was among the top three human trafficking hotspots in the country. He did not mention the other two hotspots in his presentation.
Sabah's growing notoriety
As evidence of Sabah's growing notoriety from the menace, he cited the prosecution of 23 pimps, including seven women, in the state in the last two years. The seven women were arrested this month along with four other pimps who were involved in similar operations in Indonesia, he added. “They moved here because the pickings were reportedly better and enforcement is weak.”
Twenty-two women were rescued in January alone in Keningau, according to Taufik, and 33 other women elsewhere in eight raids last year. “The cases are being treated under the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act 2007 (ATIP Act) as they were trafficked and tricked into prostitution”.
Explaining the difference between a prostitute and a person trafficked for sexual purposes, Taufik stressed that the former was free to move around unlike the latter. Trafficked women are generally confined, abused and are not allowed to move around without close monitoring, it was pointed out. “These women were sometimes forced into the sex slave trade by deception, coercion, abuse or intimidation.”
The authorities find prosecutions under the 2007 Act not only an uphill challenge but often a losing battle at the end of the day. They attribute this to the reluctance of victims of human trafficking to co-operate with the law and admit that they were trafficked and lured into prostitution.
“We believe that if ten persons, for example, point their fingers at the same person for the same illegal operation, we will be able to nab the human traffickers,” said Taufik, calling for greater co-operation from other agencies and the various consulates in the state to battle the scourge.
Another difficulty faced by the authorities was housing and caring for victims of human trafficking pending their day in court.
While human traffickers could easily escape persecution under the 2007 Act in the absence of co-operation from their victims, ironically the latter could still be charged under the Immigration Act for over-staying, misusing their social passes or, under Section 372B of the Penal Code, for soliciting for the purpose of prostitution.
The human traffickers meanwhile get the proverbial slap on the wrist under Section 372A of the Penal Code for living on or trading in prostitution.
'Enforcement is weak'
“Human trafficking is the nation's number two problem after drugs,” charged senior lawyer Martin Idang who represented the Archdiocese Human Development Commission Kota Kinabalu at the seminar. “It's important to tackle this problem before it gets any worse.”
SaWAC deputy chairperson Mariati Robert, speaking on the sidelines of the seminar, charged that enforcement of the 2007 Act was weak amidst strong circumstantial evidence that “the authorities were also actively involved in human trafficking.”
Earlier, in closing the seminar, the senior lawyer attributed the negative public perception of the police, Immigration Department, Home Ministry, Human Resources Ministry and other relevant authorities to “their failure to curb human trafficking activities in Sabah.”
Mariati, continuing, told the local media that the existing Special Task Force on illegal immigration should also consider the human trafficking aspect of the problem.
“Instead of setting up a new task force to combat human trafficking, it's better to extend the existing Special Task Force on illegal immigration to include human trafficking as well,” she said, seeing both problems as inter-twined.
SaWAC's campaign against human trafficking amongst locals, she disclosed, would henceforth focus on warning the youth against dubious job offers from syndicates and encouraging the setting up of shelters for victims. Here, the local and foreign victims could avail themselves of counseling and other support programmes on the road to recovery and while awaiting their court cases.
“There are only three protection centres in Sabah including the Good Shepherd Welfare Centre,” lamented Mariati, calling for more NGO involvement in resolving the problem of lack of shelters. “Two other centres are run by the government in Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan.”
The 200-odd participants at the seminar heard that five individuals have been sentenced so far under the 2007 Act. The first involved an Indian national who pleaded guilty to exploiting his maid for prostitution, and jailed eight years.
Since Feb 2008, 173 suspects have been arrested under the 2007 Act, of whom 23 were prosecuted, 17 brought to court and 36 cases still under investigation.
Malaysians, according to presentations at the seminar, are also involved in human trafficking activities in Singapore, Macau, Taiwan, Hong Kong, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
Women brought into Malaysia are usually from Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Korea, Philippines and Indonesia.