By Michael Kaung
KOTA KINABALU: Sabah police have admitted that the state is now a hotspot for human trafficking in the country.
Apart from the difficulty in preventing crimes due to the state's weak border control, providing shelter and protection to victims who escape the trade has also become a major concern.
Head of the anti-gambling, gangsterism and prostitution unit at the Sabah police headquarters, DSP Mohd Taufik Maidin, said police are finding it hard to shelter the victims while waiting for their cases to be brought up in court.
Taufik said Sabah is considered one of the three top destinations for human traffickers in the country and several syndicates had been crippled between last year and March this year.
He said 23 pimps, including seven women, were arrested for luring women into the sex trade.
He added that 35 women, mostly foreigners from a neighbouring country, were arrested in three raids at prostitution dens, including in the interior of the state.
Taufik, who made the disclosure in his paper “Trafficking Crime in Sabah” during a seminar on “Anti-Trafficking in Persons(ATIP) Act 2007” here on Tuesday said the 33 women, aged between 14 and 28, were detained during raids last year.
He said human trafficking thrived in Sabah due to its economic prosperity as well as to poor border control, which allowed people to enter the state illegally.
"The open and rugged border made monitoring human trafficking difficult besides logistic and manpower problems.
Victims are brought in overland as well as by sea and air and are forced into the sex trade by deception, coercion, abuse or intimidation, Taufik said.
Sabah Women's Advisory Council (SWAC) deputy chairman Mariati Robert agrees that there is insufficient protection for victims of the crime.
She said there was an urgent need to set up more shelters in the state to protect such victims, especially on the east coast of the state.
There are three such homes, one of which is run by an NGO.
"Due to human trafficking and other related violent activities, these homes are inadequate to help the police when victims like battered wives and children seek protection."
She said such homes should also be staffed by qualified counsellors to help rehabilitate the victims.
The seminar was told that so far five people have been convicted under the ATIP Act, with the first case involving a foreigner who pleaded guilty to forcing his maid into prostitution.
Since 2008, 173 suspects have been arrested under the Act, 23 have been prosecuted, 17 have been brought to court and 36 are under investigation.
Eighty percent of the cases are suspected to have been involved in human trafficking for prostitution.
Five enforcement officers have been arrested for their involvement in trafficking Myanmar refugees and one has been prosecuted.
Most of the women brought into Malaysia are from Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and South Korea.
It is not a one-way traffic. Malaysians have also found themselves victims in countries such as Singapore, Macau, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.
The seminar was organised by SWAC to increase public awareness of the Act and will also be conducted in other districts in the state soon.
Human trafficking is different from people smuggling where people pay a fee to smugglers to get them into a country. There may be no deception involved in the illegal agreement. On arrival at the destination, the smuggled persons are usually free to find their own way.
The trafficking victim, on the other hand, is not permitted to leave, and is required to work or provide services of some kind to the trafficker or others.
The arrangement may be in the form of a work contract, but with no or low payment or on highly exploitative terms.
Sometimes the arrangement is structured as a debt bondage, with the victim not being permitted or able to pay off the debt.
Victims are sometimes tricked and lured by false promises or are physically forced.
Some traffickers coerce or manipulate victims and use deception, intimidation, feigned love, isolation, threats and physical force, and debt bondage.
Trafficking is a lucrative industry and could be controlled by criminal organisations.
However, most of the trafficking is done by networks of smaller groups that each specialises in a certain area, like recruitment, transport, advertising, or retail.
This is profitable because little start-up capital is needed, and prosecution is relatively rare.
People who victims of trafficking are usually the most vulnerable and powerless minorities.
They come mostly from the poorer areas where opportunities are limited. They are often ethnic minorities or displaced persons such as runaways or refugees, though they may come from any social background, class or race.