Law enforcement mixing up human trafficking, migrant smuggling, says expert

Former Dutch national rapporteur on human trafficking and sexual violence against children Corinne Dettmeijer said law enforcement often conflated trafficking with migrant smuggling, which undermined the identification and protection of trafficking victims. (X pic)

PETALING JAYA: Malaysia’s battle against human trafficking is being undermined by a critical issue within its law enforcement practices, a United Nations forum heard.

According to human rights and anti-trafficking expert Corinne Dettmeijer, law enforcement agencies here are mixing up human trafficking with migrant smuggling.

She was speaking at a Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) high-level dialogue in Geneva, which was aired live online today.

Dettmeijer, a former European Union (EU) rapporteur on human trafficking and sexual violence against children, said this “misidentification” severely hampered enforcement of anti-trafficking laws and the proper identification of trafficked women and girls.

“Malaysia has increased its efforts in prosecuting human trafficking through the amended Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act,” she said.

“However, law enforcement often conflates trafficking with migrant smuggling, which undermines the identification and protection of trafficking victims,” she said.

This mix-up, she said, resulted in traffickers exploiting labour, potentially facing lesser penalties under the Employment Act 1955, instead of the harsher penalties prescribed under the anti-trafficking laws.

“Trafficking and smuggling are distinct crimes with different impacts on victims. Effective enforcement requires a clear understanding and differentiation between the two,” she said.

Dettmeijer also highlighted corruption within government ranks.

“Government officials have been reported to profit from bribes, and the extortion and exploitation of migrants. This increases the cost of migration and consequently increases migrant workers’ vulnerability to trafficking through debt-based coercion.

“What steps has Malaysia taken to investigate and address the alleged complicity of public officials in human trafficking?” she asked.

Dettmeijer asked how these practices aligned with the country’s national action plan on anti-trafficking in persons (2021-2025), which focused on victim protection.

The Malaysian delegation at the meeting said the government was committed to investigating these allegations and strengthening anti-trafficking measures.

Meanwhile, Cedaw committee member Bandana Rana asked about dress codes imposed on Muslim women in Malaysia.

“The special rapporteur on cultural rights has highlighted the impact of a de facto dress code for Malaysian Muslim women in many contexts.

“What steps are being taken to ensure that dress codes are not made mandatory and that women have the freedom to choose the attire they wish to wear?” she asked, adding that a woman’s right to personal expression and freedom of choice must be protected.

In response, Zurshida Murni Abd Hamid from the Attorney-General’s Chambers said the government had no laws on dress codes.

“While guidelines have been introduced to ensure decorum, the government does not impose any dress code by way of laws for the public or in government offices,” she said, adding that freedom of expression, including the choice of attire, was protected under the Federal Constitution.

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