By Zukri Valenteno
PUTRAJAYA, March 1 (Bernama) -- It is not easy to measure up to Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi's standards. The expectations of this man on a mission to eradicate trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants in Malaysia are firmly above average, and his tasks can at times even be seen as tall orders.
But, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs is a reasonable and pragmatic person for he believes that all tasks and assignments are doable and deliverable given the right and positive mind, utmost determination and dedication.
However, although Malaysia's recent score and statistics in the year 2017 in the war on trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants have been quite impressive with vast improvements across the board and outstanding achievements compared with 2015 and 2016, Ahmad Zahid is far from satisfied.
He just wants more results.
Ahmad Zahid is pressing for more action, aggressive no less, with the aim of escalating the already intense war against trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants in Malaysia, to take it to a new level by all the concerned authorities.
"Let's take it to the next level," he said recently.
The latest figures released by the National Strategic Office to the Council for Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (ATIPSOM), being the custodian of the crackdown on both crimes and the sole agency responsible, have been impressive with remarkable improvement vis-?is the total war against trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants in the country.
For the record, Malaysia has registered a total of 100 convictions in human trafficking-related cases in the whole year of 2016, compared with only seven in 2015.
Of the 100 convictions, 79 were for trafficking in persons, nine for smuggling of migrants with elements of human trafficking while 12 were cases related to trafficking in persons.
A total of 326 investigation papers have been opened in relation to the cases, with 414 charges filed with the court, arising from 679 arrests.
From January to December 2017, some 282 cases were brought to court related to trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, and 58 convictions were recorded for trafficking in persons while 75 cases were related to both offences, making a total of 133 cases so far.
The Malaysian Government has also requested the Government of Thailand to extradite 10 suspects who were believed to be involved in trafficking-in-persons offences along the common border.
This particular cases, involving perpetrators among Malaysians and foreigners, are being dealt with under the existing laws of trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, amended over the years to give more claw to the enforcement agencies with the resolve to combat and eradicate trafficking in persons and the smuggling of migrants which were mostly cross-border in nature.
The border areas between Malaysia and Thailand and Malaysia and Indonesia are susceptible to these crimes, with victims from all gender and age mostly illegally transferred across the border by external and internal syndicates working hand-in-glove.
It was a quantum leap of sorts for Kuala Lumpur's drive against trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants in terms of the number of cases brought by the enforcement agencies within 12 months, culminating in a series of convictions for trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants.
It was actually a far cry from the previous corresponding years.
The numbers have been impressive and it only goes to show and demonstrate the dedication and steadfastness on the part of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) in eradicating what is often described as a lucrative trade in this part of the world.
Ahmad Zahid, at a recent high-level National Strategic Office to the Council for Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants meeting he chaired, said: "Yes, we have done a lot in the last 12 months, but there's much more to be done... because criminals never stop. When they don't stop, neither do we.
"Our elevation to Tier 2 by the US Department of State is most welcomed and a steadfast recognition of our continuous all-round effort, but it just does not stop or slow down our resolve.
Instead, we are very encouraged and determined to do better... perhaps now onto Tier 1," he said, saying that now Kuala Lumpur aspires to be positioned in Tier 1 in the US Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report prepared by its Department of State.
Prior to the elevation, Malaysia's position in the US TIP Report has been average.
In 2001, when the US TIP Report was initially implemented, Malaysia was on Tier 3 but was elevated to Tier 2 a year later and remained there for the next three years.
In 2006, Malaysia's position descended to the Tier 2 Watch List, until it was further relegated to Tier 3 in 2007. In 2008, it was back to the Tier 2 Watch List but went down again to Tier 3 in 2009.
Between 2010 and 2013, Malaysia was back on the Tier 2 Watch List but descended to Tier 3 in 2014.
Kuala Lumpur's successful climb to the Tier 2 Watch List began in 2015 and 2016 until it was finally elevated to Tier 2 in 2017.
With Ahmad Zahid's unwavering commitment and intensified cooperation from members of NSO to the Council of ATIPSOM in improving efforts against trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, Malaysia's recent elevation from the Tier 2 Watch List to Tier 2 is by far the best achievement since the amendment to the ATIPSOM Act 2007 in 2015.
MOHA's year-long commitment and resolve, and that in the previous years is second to none, and the latest statistics underscore its undertakings and the enormity as well as importance, and it is about time due recognition is given to Malaysia.
In the words of Ahmad Zahid: "We are deeply serious in our commitment; we have never wavered, neither in format nor substance. Our statistics demonstrate our resolve."
However, not once or twice but quite a number of times in the past the Deputy Prime Minister lamented on the need for a better acknowledgment that Malaysia could have been accorded with, vis-a-vis the war against trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants.
There were times previously that he questioned how Kuala Lumpur, ostensibly a benevolent state saddled with scores of migrants, could be categorised at the Tier 2 Watch List while certain source countries of the foreigners were one notch up at Tier 2.
Ironic? Yes, and perhaps Malaysia was unevenly assessed by a third party whom it should impress upon to improve the standing.
Due recognition is, without a doubt, a necessity at this point in time.
Here, the business of the Malaysian Government in addressing and eradicating trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants is not a mere window dressing exercise for the Ministry of Home Affairs helmed by Ahmad Zahid and led by secretary-general Datuk Seri Alwi Ibrahim.
By any standard, it is not even a PR deliverable.
The deficit in due recognition is a matter of grave concern as Malaysia's standing in trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants is of paramount importance as it leads in relation to other bilateral equations between the two countries, including the Kuala Lumpur-Washington Visa Waiver Programme (VWP), among others.
But far from whining on the precedent without any constructive effort to improve the acknowledgment, Malaysia has over the last 12 months achieved unprecedented breakthroughs, adequately amounting to a purview in a different and fresher perspective.
There was even a film, entitled Sindiket by a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which portrayed the crime focusing on the abduction of young girls along the common border of Malaysia and Indonesia. The film encapsulated the cross-border crime perpetrated by hoodlums from both sides of the divide with victims of similar disposition.
The NGO tagged along with the government in the crusade against trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants with the production of the film, a rarity in its genre for the Malaysian audience.
Let there be no ambiguity in our efforts, we are dead serious on the issue of human trafficking and smuggling of migrants, Ahmad Zahid said on the release of the film which positively supported the ministry's crackdown on both crimes.
At a high-level meeting, a multi-agency task force, appropriately named the Malaysian ATIPSOM Task Force against Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants, was established at the beginning of 2017 and had its duty extended until December 2018.
The high-level committee reviewed its deliverables and agreed that the task force has been commendable in its operations, hence the assignment should be given the appropriate extension to meet its objectives.
Amendments to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act (ATIPSOM) in 2010 and 2015 led to the setting up of the task force and set the momentum of the establishment of the National Action Plan on Human Trafficking 2016-2020 (NAP) which was launched by Ahmad Zahid in the middle of 2016.
The task force was set up with members drawn from the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM), Immigration Department (JIM), Royal Customs Department (KDRM), Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (APMM), and Labour Department of the Ministry of Human Resource, Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) and National Security Council (MKN).
With its primary objective to eliminate and eradicate trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants in and off this country, the task force has been zooming in on high-profile cases as well as other cases while at the same time combating the ills of the crime throughout the country.
While it was in line with the national agenda of the National Blue Ocean Strategy (NBOS) of cooperation among ministries and departments, the task force focuses on an integrated approach in its modus operandi, with favourable results as illustrated in the number of cases brought before the courts to date.
There is another interesting dimension added in the war against trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants in Malaysia, perhaps unlike in any other country where anti-human trafficking and anti-smuggling of persons are regarded as a national agenda in which both the government and NGOs join forces to no end.
Through the ideation of Ahmad Zahid, several office-bearers of NGOs including Pusat Kebajikan Good Shepherd, Tenaganita, Yayasan Khaza'a, SUKA Society and Protect and Save the Children were appointed officers to protect victims, alongside the existing enforcement officers of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry (KPWKM).
The Deputy Prime Minister presented letters of appointment to 12 representatives of NGOs whose commitment now is to ensure better and proper care for victims of human trafficking.
The ministry is to provide the fund for the management and delivery of shelters to assist victims. Between January and December 2017, there were about 1,097 victims being sheltered at these centres in Johor, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka, Kuala Lumpur and Sabah.
With the number, most shelters are already filled to the brim as the maximum capacity is only 400 with Kuala Lumpur being the biggest to have housed 954 victims.
Forty-six male children and 56 female children were being housed at these shelters, and they were among the 1,097 victims at seven locations, including 106 in Sabah, 204 in Melaka, 210 in Kuala Lumpur, 352 in Johor and 123 in the central zone.
These rescued persons are categorised as being under either an interim protection order (IPO) or a protection order (PO) as well as temporary placement (TP).
Of these, 68 boys were under IPO and 46 under PO, and 118 girls under IPO and 56 under PO who were rescued from the clutches of human traffickers and smugglers, and they are of several nationalities.
Having been in the forefront in combating trafficking in persons cases, the government has also embarked on several publicity campaigns to communicate its achievements, with about 1,450 public service announcements in the form of made-for-television capsules and other items and 6,875 similar items over the radio.
Looking at the big picture, it is now a complete spectrum in as far as Malaysia is concerned, for the war against trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants is taken seriously by the Putrajaya Administration.
The public, too, can play their part by reporting human trafficking cases to 03-8000 8000, a hotline launched by Alwi on The World Day Against Human Trafficking 2017.
Recently, Ahmad Zahid announced the setting up of a special court to deal only with human trafficking and smuggling in of migrants cases.
All these initiatives and actions are a solid demonstration and manifestation of the steadfast effort and commitment by the Malaysian Government in its ongoing war against trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants.
The prospect of elevation to Tier 1 in the year 2020, as per Malaysia's aspiration, would not come as a surprise for it will be for the final and complete recognition of the efforts over the years.
Datuk Zukri Valenteno, a former journalist and press secretary, is Head of Corporate Communications at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Putrajaya.