MANILA, Philippines—Thousands of women from Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, as well as China and India were trafficked to Malaysia for forced labor and prostitution, according to an unclassified 2006 cable from the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur released by WikiLeaks, the online whistle-blower.
In a memo to the US Department of State dated March 3, 2006, then US Ambassador to Malaysia Christopher LaFleur also reported that the Southeast Asian country was a “destination and—to a lesser extent—a transit country for men and women trafficked for forced labor.”
“Some economic migrants from countries in the region who work as domestic servants and laborers in the construction and agricultural sectors face exploitative conditions in Malaysia that meet the definition of involuntary servitude,” Lafleur disclosed.
Aside from the Washington-based State Department, the envoy also furnished the following US agencies copies of the embassy memo, titled “Malaysia’s Sixth Annual Trafficking in Persons Report”: Homeland Security Center, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of Treasury, and American diplomatic missions in Southeast Asia.
In addition to women from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, “smaller numbers” of women from Cambodia, Burma and Laos were also trafficked to Malaysia, said LaFleur.
All eight countries are part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean.
“Anectodal evidence indicates that numbers of victims coming from neighboring Asean countries have remained relatively constant over the last few years. The number and patterns of victims coming from source countries tend to reflect Malaysian government immigration and visa policies,” the envoy pointed out.
According to LaFleur, China “has become the largest and fastest-growing source country for prostitutes in Malaysia. Many of these Chinese women and girls are likely trafficking victims.”
“China has grown as a source country in recent years due to a more liberal Malaysian visa policy that reflects growing economic ties and Malaysian government efforts to encourage tourism and university enrollment from Chinese students,” he explained.
LaFleur noted that “while there are no reliable statistics revealing the total number of women trafficked into (Malaysia), estimates can be made drawing from different sources.”
“Foreign embassies and (non-government organizations’) report that in 2005, at least 500 trafficking victims were rescued and repatriated,” he said.
The US diplomat also revealed that “during the first nine months of 2005, 4,678 foreign women were arrested and detained for suspected involvement in prostitution, compared with 5,783 arrested during all of 2004.”
“Chinese nationals accounted for 40 percent, the largest percentage of such arrests, followed by nationals of Indonesia (25 percent), Thailand (17 percent), and the Philippines (10 percent). According to the government-funded National Human Rights Commission, or Suhakam and involved NGOs, a significant number of these women were probable trafficking victims,” said LaFleur.
The Royal Malaysia Police “compiles statistics on arrests of foreign women with suspected involvement in prostitution, broken down by nationality. The Immigration Department’s enforcement division also collects data on trafficking cases.”
However, “Malaysian authorities do not adequately distinguish illegal migrants from trafficking victims. Law enforcement officials assert that the great majority of the foreign women arrested for prostitution in Malaysia entered the country voluntarily and with valid travel documents.”
On the other hand, “surveys by the Suhakam and interviews with Indonesian, Thai and Philippine embassy officials indicate that as many as 50 percent of foreign women arrested for prostitution are possible trafficking victims,” said LaFleur.
The Malaysian government “encourages victims to assist in the investigation and prosecution of trafficking cases, but reports says that most victims are unwilling to testify… One NGO reported that pimps and traffickers are often present in the courtroom during court proceedings to intimidate the victims.”
In terms of prevention, “the Malaysian government took steps in 2002 and 2003 to toughen the criteria for young foreigners seeking student visas. It has also stepped up border detection for smuggling, illegal migration and people trafficking,”
LaFleur added “there is no evidence of widespread tolerance of complicity in trafficking-in-persons by government authorities, though accusations of more general corruption, particularly at the local police and immigration levels exist.”