The government maintained mixed protection efforts. In 2021, the government identified and confirmed 96 trafficking victims among 373 potential victims, which represented a decrease from the previous reporting period when the government identified and confirmed 119 victims among 487. The government had victim identification SOPs—formally adopted in April 2020—to guide law enforcement officers to identify victims during official duties. However, the government did not systematically implement these SOPs nationwide, especially in rural areas and in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, which resulted in officers’ failure to refer some victims to shelter and other protection services. The government continued to focus most of its identification efforts on the use of large-scale police raids of suspected commercial sex establishments and factories suspected of forced labor, the more prevalent trafficking problem in Malaysia; NGOs reported some police units continued to conduct these raids during the reporting period. The government, however, did not place adequate attention on the identification of victims of forced labor; officials often relied on reports of abuse from embassies representing foreign workers, victims to “self- identify,” or workers’ complaints of non-payment of wages and other violations. During large-scale operations to detect undocumented migrants, NGOs reported police and immigration officers inconsistently applied victim identification procedures or were slow to identify victims, ultimately preventing some foreign victims from receiving protection services. The government also did not adequately screen asylum-seekers and refugees for indicators of trafficking. Because of officials’ inconsistent use of victim identification SOPs, authorities may have detained, arrested, and deported some unidentified trafficking victims for immigration or “prostitution” violations. NGOs continued to report authorities treated potential victims identified during police or immigration raids like criminals; this treatment and the raid environment were not conducive to victims speaking candidly to law enforcement and consequently contributed to the government’s insufficient identification of victims.
ATIPSOM required the government place victims who were granted a court-ordered 21-day interim protection order (for potential trafficking victims) or a subsequent 90-day protection order (for certified trafficking victims) at a “place of refuge,” designated by the Minister of Home Affairs. During the reporting period, the government granted all 96 certified victims with full protection orders and housed them in government- operated shelters where they had access to food; some medical care; social, religious, and income-generating activities; and security. While the law permitted authorities to place victims who were Malaysian citizens or permanent residents in the care of family members or a guardian, as opposed to a government shelter or other designated place of refuge, the law required foreign victims to remain in government shelters for the duration of their protection orders. 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 in order to certify them as victims and grant 90-day protection orders, which prevented some victims from obtaining protection services. Undocumented foreign trafficking victims had a considerably lower chance of obtaining protection orders compared with foreign victims who had valid immigration papers. Moreover, officials’ interpretation that ATIPSOM required a trafficking victim to be subjected to physical restraint prevented the government from identifying some victims and issuing protection orders to many potential victims.
The Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development (MWFCD) continued to fund shelters for trafficking victims: eight government- operated and two NGO-operated. In 2021, MWFCD collaborated with civil society organizations to develop a training manual for protection officers and shelter personnel on victim-centered approaches to protecting trafficking victims. The government allocated 785,000 RM ($188,020) to two shelters operated by local NGOs that could assist potential and certified victims, an increase of RM 30,000 compared with its allocation of 755,000 RM ($180,840) to two shelters in 2020. However, the government reported it was unable to utilize allocated funds to NGO-operated shelters due to pandemic-related restrictions limiting in-person activities. 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 some government shelters, language barriers continued to impact 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 expanded victims’ communication, including with family members in their home countries, and while the government did not permit victims to possess personal phones in shelters, the Malaysian government expanded capacity to allow weekly internet calls to family from shelters, including video calls. Authorities did not permit 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 female victims of sex trafficking. Although the government reported freedom of movement passes allowed victims to leave the shelters unchaperoned, in practice, a victim’s movement outside of shelters remained restricted to chaperoned trips. NGOs reported these shelter conditions resulted in victims feeling as though they were detained. The government issued 102 freedom of movement passes to potential and confirmed victims in 2021, an increase from the 66 passes issued in 2020. The government also granted 11 victims continued permission to work, which also demonstrated an increase from the one work visa it granted to a victim in the previous reporting period.
The government reported 55 victims participated in 110 investigations or prosecutions in 2021; it did not report how many victims participated in investigations or prosecutions in the previous reporting period. 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. NGOs reported cases in which public prosecutors did not appropriately interview victims to ensure courts granted them protection orders. In 2021, the MAPO Council established a roster of volunteer interpreters, who spoke 16 languages and received anti-trafficking training from NGOs, to be available for victims who participated in investigations or prosecutions; during the year, interpreters assisted 32 victims at various stages of the legal process. 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, the absence of shelters in northern Malaysia hindered the ability of prosecutors 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 like criminals, including taking victims to court in handcuffs for a trafficker’s trial. Although the law permitted victims to testify remotely, authorities generally expected victims to remain in-country pending trial proceedings. To address this challenge, the 2021 amendment to ATIPSOM 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. Labor trafficking victims could file civil suits against their employers to obtain compensation or recoup unpaid wages; however, the government did not provide restitution for sex trafficking victims. For labor trafficking victims who participated in court proceedings, the government instructed prosecutors to request restitution in each case; during the reporting period, prosecutors requested restitution in 13 cases and secured $25,000, which demonstrated an overall increase from $21,450 secured for five cases in 2020. The MAPO council conducted a 12-month pilot project—initiated in March 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 did not release the results of the project by the end of the reporting period.
The government added four additional officers to the VAS program under which a total of six appointed specialists provided services to trafficking victims from the time authorities identified them, through the judicial process, and during their repatriation to their home country. NGOs reported cases of authorities not allowing VAS specialists to join law enforcement during investigations or raids, which negatively impacted law enforcement’s ability to appropriately screen for and identify victims. The VAS specialists worked with and provided assistance to 66 victims during the reporting period, a substantial increase from the 15 victims they assisted in 2020. As in past years, many identified foreign victims preferred to return immediately to their home countries. The government worked with foreign diplomatic missions to fund and provide repatriation assistance for victims to return to their home countries. The government continued to give monthly allowance payments of 120 RM ($29) to victims for incidental expenditures. 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 did not provide legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims to countries where they may face hardship or retribution. ATIPSOM required that foreign victims without legal residence in Malaysia be referred to immigration authorities for repatriation upon the revocation of their protection order.