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Human Trafficking in Malaysia


By Michelle Paulsen

Photo by Hanna-

Photo by Hanna-

I think I know what human trafficking is. I mean, I know I know what it is. But I will not be able to give you any more elaboration or explanation regarding human trafficking, let alone human trafficking in Malaysia.

Most Malaysians are like me, and most do not know anything about the seriousness of human trafficking either. Stop an average Malaysian on the street and quiz them on how human trafficking happens or what are the governmental laws relating to prevention or punishment of human trafficking, and I am quite certain the average Malaysian will just give you a blank stare instead of impressing you with tons of facts.

This is no exaggeration. The level of awareness regarding human trafficking in Malaysia is rather low. It is saddening yet the average Malaysian cannot really be blamed. They were not taught in school and neither are the current average Malaysian children.

Human trafficking in Malaysia is rather serious and yet sadly, not many are aware of it. Malaysia, to a certain extent is a source for human trafficking victims and human trafficking offenders but more importantly, it is also a place of transit for many human trafficking routes[1].

What happens is many foreign workers from Indonesia, Nepal, India, Thailand, China, the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Vietnam[2] voluntarily migrate to Malaysia in their search for employment[3]. Well, many do believe the saying that the grass is greener on the other side. Unfortunately for them, that saying is not true.

Most work in plantations, construction sites and textile factories. They are put under forced labour or debt bondage. They experience restrictions on movement, deceit and fraud in wages and even passport confiscation. There are some employers who do not even pay their foreign workers three to six months’ worth of wages in order to recover recruitment agency charges. In other words, these workers are under a modern form of slavery.

As if this was not bad enough, there is an even more evil form of human trafficking. It is an evil that destroys the victim’s life and damages her sense of self-dignity. It is sex trafficking.

A rather significant number of young foreign women are deceived by human trafficking offenders. They are recruited for work in Malaysian restaurants and hotels. Some migrate through the use of “Guest Relations Officer” visas.

They are then coerced into Malaysia’s commercial sex trade and many are locked up in warehouses or brothels. They are sometimes referred to as “China dolls” as many of these young foreign women are from China[4]. Besides foreign women being sex trafficked in Malaysia, quite a number of Malaysian women are trafficked internally and abroad to Singapore, Hong Kong, France and the United Kingdom[5].

Another category of people who are also very much susceptible to human trafficking are the refugees that reside in Malaysia and the Malaysians that are stateless.

Statelessness is well known as being a big contributing factor of human trafficking. Without birth certificates or identity cards, a stateless Malaysian is usually denied access to education, healthcare and the right to own property, causing this group of people to suffer in poverty. They are unable to seek official employment due to their lack of documents, indirectly forcing them to seek unofficial employment opportunities or illegal jobs, and hence are at a huge risk of human trafficking.

Likewise with the refugees, they are also unable to get proper jobs due to their lack of recognition from the Malaysian government. Just like most of the Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia has yet to sign the refugee convention and protocol[6]. Hence, refugees are considered to be “illegal immigrants” by Malaysian law.

Nevertheless, not all hope is lost. There are a number of NGOs whose main focus is to aid the human trafficking victims by providing shelter, rescuing them and even working with them on mental health issues.

The All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) focuses on Lobbying and Advocacy and Training and Education to prevent violence against women. Another women’s organisation, Tenaganita (Women’s Force) focuses on Migrant and Refugee Rights Protection, Anti-trafficking in Persons, Health and HIV Aids and Business Accountability and Responsibility. There is also another well-known women’s organisation called the Women’s Aid Organisation. They provide shelter, counselling and assistance to women victims of violence and their children.

On the other hand, Health Equity Initiative works with refugees on mental health issues as many refugees suffer from severe mental health issues due to what they go through at work or worse, at the detention centres. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) has also managed to champion a regional approach, an ASEAN Declaration against Trafficking in Persons and a Regional Trafficking in Persons Information Centre. Besides these prominent and more well-known NGOs, there are also more low-profile NGOs such as Change Your World. Change Your World goes from city to city in Malaysia to create awareness, presenting real issues and practical solutions towards saving lives.

The government of Malaysia has also made considerable progress in terms of law enforcement efforts against sex trade although efforts to prosecute and convict trafficking offenders are rather minimal[7]. Malaysian law prohibits all forms of human trafficking, as stated in the Anti Trafficking in Persons (Amendment) Act 2010.

Amendments were enacted to broaden the definition of trafficking to include all actions involved in acquiring and maintaining the labour or services of a person through coercion. The amendments also include the Labour Department within the Ministry of Human Resources as an enforcement agency[8].

Hence, it is now a requirement for foreign domestic workers and their employers to attend a compulsory half-day seminar on workers’ rights and also receive a pamphlet on those rights before starting employment[9]. Now, the Ministry of Human Resource also requires a portion of a domestic worker’s salary to be placed into a bank account in the employee’s name to provide a record of payment and help avoid issues of unpaid wages[10].

Furthermore, the cooperation between the authorities and the NGOs has increased. There has been more discussion between them regarding ways to improve the authorities’ anti-trafficking responses and actions to be taken. A relevant example would be the inclusion of several NGOs on the National Council for Anti-Trafficking in Persons.

Besides, some of the anti-trafficking trainings for officials who are in charge of combating trafficking are conducted by international organisations and NGOs. The government has also provided a group of 125 women’s organisations with $64, 500 in funding to promote capacity building and awareness programs related to human trafficking.

In conclusion, Malaysia does have some human trafficking issues to tackle and still has lots of room for improvement. Despite that, Malaysia’s issues are not as serious as certain countries and the government has shown some initiative and some willingness to improve the situation in Malaysia. After all, the saying the grass is always greener on the other side is almost never true.

In addition, Malaysia is very blessed to have so many NGOs who go all out to help these human trafficking victims and also to help spread the awareness regarding human trafficking in Malaysia. There will never be a perfect country with zero evil. It will always be up to the good to right the wrong that exists in the country.

[1] ‘Most victims of human trafficking job-seekers, says Wan Junaidi ‘ (The Borneo Post 2013) <> accessed 26 July 2013

[2] Peter Westmore, ‘Vietnamese slave-labourers in Malaysia’ (News Weekly 2008) <> accessed 17 June 2013

[3] ‘Malaysia still under observation for human trafficking’ (My Sinchew 2013) <> accessed 24 July 2013

[4] Chan Li Leen, ‘Even non-Chinese are falling for the charms of China Dolls’ (The Star Online 2011) <> accessed 19 June 2013

[5] Puah Sze Ning, ‘The Perverse World of Human Trafficking’ (Esquire Malaysia 2013) <> accessed 17 June 2013

[6] ‘World Report 2012 : Malaysia’ (Human Rights Watch 2012) <> accessed 18 June 2013

[7] Ludy Green, ‘Malaysia Economic Growth and Its Human Trafficking Issue’ (The Huffington Post 2013) <> accessed 27 July 2013

[8] ‘The Situation’ (Human Trafficking Org 2011) <> accessed 16 June 2013

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

Michelle Paulsen is a volunteer with VoC and a second year law student that wants to see good change in her beloved country, Malaysia. She can be contacted at

This article was published in ALSA Taiwan Study Trip’s magazine in July 2013. It has been reprinted with permission from the author. 

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Voice of the Children. Youth Voices is a safe space for youth to engage constructively and discuss social issues.


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