Admit that Malaysians get trafficked too, Putrajaya told

Tenaganita director Aegile Fernandez says there have been cases of young girls sold as sex workers overseas.

PETALING JAYA: Human rights group Tenaganita has urged the government to strengthen its political will to fight the trafficking of Malaysians to other countries.

Tenaganita director and consultant on anti-human trafficking Aegile Fernandez alleged that the authorities were either inattentive to the problem or refusing to acknowledge that Malaysians could fall victim to human trafficking syndicates.

Fernandez told FMT that Tenaganita had, in the past two decades, encountered several cases of young girls being sold as sex workers overseas, and the organisation had helped some of them return to Malaysia. These were mostly those sold in neighbouring countries.

She said many who were sold in western countries tended to remain there after being rescued because those countries had good systems in place to help trafficking victims.

These girls were often young enough to go to school in their host countries after being rescued, she said, adding that they prefer to continue living there after they find work.

Fernandez also spoke of the trafficking of girls from one state to another within Malaysia.

She said some traffickers would exercise a lot of patience, going through the slow process of befriending and grooming potential victims.

She described human trafficking as a “complex crime” that would often involve misleading and cheating the victims and, sometimes, kidnapping.

Fernandez also spoke of “grey areas of the human trafficking problem”, referring to Malaysians sent to work on farms in western countries, giving as an example fruit pickers in Australia.

Noting that Malaysians accounted for the highest number of undocumented migrants in Australia and alleging that many who were working on farms were not paid the salaries they were promised, she asked: “Are they victims of trafficking?”

Speaking of foreigners smuggled into Malaysia, Fernandez alleged that the authorities preferred to look at those who had given their consent as cases falling under crimes other than trafficking.

She warned that thin definitions would make it difficult to identify victims and fight the crime.

She also spoke of the need for the authorities to be more diligent in solving cases of missing children, saying those who had been classified as runaways could in fact be victims of traffickers.

“We’ve been working a lot with sex workers and many of them are trafficking victims and some are children,” she said.

She alleged that more and more children were being lured into the sex trade for foreign and local paedophiles, especially in the past two years.

In a previous interview with FMT, Fernandez said crackdowns on the child sex trade in Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines indicated that foreign paedophiles were increasingly targeting Malaysia as a destination for underage sex.

“There are signs, but our authorities don’t investigate,” she said, adding that the victimised children were both Malaysians and refugees.

She called for improvements in the support systems for all victims of trafficking, noting that the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report for 2019 said Malaysia had not fully met the minimum standards in its fight against the crime.

She complained that the government had not allocated a budget for NGOs working to raise awareness of the problem and to help victims.

“The authorities are never victim-centred,” she said. “Why aren’t they putting traffickers and employers who violate the law behind bars? They always put the victims behind bars instead.”

Fernandez accused the authorities of concentrating their efforts only on conducting raids and ignoring the need to look at the roots of the crime.

She also said there was no support system for Malaysian victims who had come back to the country silently and were vulnerable to getting trafficked again.

She claimed that Malaysians as a community did not fully comprehend the issues related to human trafficking and she placed the blame partly on the lack of continuity in highlighting the problem and educating the public on it.

“We are a small country. If, together, we put our heart and soul into curbing the crime, we can bring it down.”