2021 Trafficking in Persons Report: Malaysia


The Government of Malaysia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so, even considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Malaysia was downgraded to Tier 3. Despite the lack of significant efforts, the government took some steps to address trafficking. The government prosecuted and convicted some traffickers, adopted victim identification standard operating procedures (SOPs), continued to identify and provide some protection services to trafficking victims, and publicly released the results of a survey it funded on the prevalence of forced and child labor in the palm oil sector. However, the government continued to conflate human trafficking and migrant smuggling crimes and did not adequately address or criminally pursue credible allegations from multiple sources alleging labor trafficking, including in the rubber manufacturing industry and palm oil sector, with the government owning 33 percent of the third largest palm oil company in the world. The government continued to rely on victims to “self-identify” and did not implement SOPs to proactively identify victims during law enforcement raids or among vulnerable populations with whom authorities came in contact; thus, authorities continued to inappropriately penalize victims for immigration and prostitution violations. Insufficient interagency coordination and inadequate victim services, which discouraged foreign victims from remaining in Malaysia to participate in criminal proceedings, continued to hinder successful law enforcement efforts to prosecute traffickers. Despite ongoing concerns that corruption facilitated trafficking, the government arrested and investigated, but did not prosecute or convict, officials who were allegedly complicit in trafficking-related crimes.


Increase efforts to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable populations, including household workers and palm oil plantation workers • Increase efforts to prosecute and convict more trafficking cases—as distinct from migrant smuggling—including those involving complicit officials and forced labor crimes. • Make public the results of investigations involving corrupt officials to increase transparency and deterrence and hold officials criminally accountable when they violate the law. • Increase law enforcement capacity to investigate and prosecute trafficking cases, including by improving interagency coordination. • Improve case management and communication with trafficking victims, including through an expanded Victim Assistance Specialist program. • Expand labor protections for domestic workers and investigate allegations of domestic worker abuse. • Take steps to eliminate recruitment or placement fees charged to workers by recruiters and ensure recruitment fees are paid by employers. • Expand efforts to inform migrant workers of their rights and Malaysian labor laws, including their rights to maintain access to their passports at any time, as well as opportunities for legal remedies to exploitation. • Create a system for access to timely and accurate interpretation in victims’ primary languages available to law enforcement, the court system, and shelters. • Continue to expand cooperation with NGOs, including through financial or in-kind support to NGOs to provide some victim rehabilitation services. • Effectively enforce the law prohibiting employers from retaining passports without employees’ consent, including by increasing resources for labor inspectors, and include language explicitly stating passports will remain in the employee’s possession in model contracts and future bilateral memoranda of understanding with labor source countries. • Increase the number of trafficking victims who obtain approval for freedom of movement from shelters, expand freedom of movement to include unchaperoned movement, and increase victims’ access to communication with people outside shelter facilities, including through telephone calls. • Train relevant officials, including labor inspectors and immigration officials, on SOPs for victim identification that include information on trafficking indicators. • Reduce prosecution delays, including by providing improved guidance to prosecutors on pursuing trafficking charges, and increase judicial familiarity with the full range of trafficking crimes, particularly forced labor. • Increase efforts to identify trafficking victims among Chinese workers on Chinese-government affiliated infrastructure projects.


The government maintained law enforcement efforts. The 2007 Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants (ATIPSOM) Act—amended in 2010 and 2015—criminalized labor trafficking and sex trafficking and prescribed punishments of three to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine, which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those prescribed for other serious offenses, such as rape. From April 2020 to March 2021, law enforcement authorities conducted 118 total human trafficking investigations and – of these cases – referred 52 suspected sex trafficking cases and 57 suspected labor trafficking cases to the Attorney General for prosecution. The Attorney General’s Chamber initiated the prosecution of 79 alleged traffickers. The courts convicted 25 human traffickers and migrant smugglers, but it did not disaggregate the data, nor did it provide case details; perpetrators were charged and convicted under a range of laws, including the ATIPSOM Act, Immigration Act, and the Penal Code. This data compared with 277 investigations (80 of which involved forced labor), 20 prosecutions, and 20 convictions during the previous reporting period. The government did not report efforts to coordinate with foreign law enforcement to investigate or prosecute trafficking cases. The government continued to conflate human trafficking and migrant smuggling, which impeded anti-trafficking law enforcement and victim identification efforts.

The Royal Malaysia Police continued to serve as the lead enforcement agency under ATIPSOM and assigned 248 officers to its specialized anti-trafficking unit. The Labor Department similarly had a specialized trafficking enforcement team with 24 officers. Although the government continued to operate an interagency anti-trafficking law enforcement task force, coordination among agencies remained insufficient. For example, police, immigration, and customs officials often failed to collaborate when an investigation fell under the purview of two or more units or departments. The pandemic further restricted criminal justice operations, including those related to human trafficking cases, as courts intermittently closed, and trials were delayed throughout the reporting period. Law enforcement did not proactively investigate potential trafficking crimes, including those that NGOs reported, and sometimes referred potential victims for immigration violations, rather than investigating their traffickers. This subsequently resulted in increased unwillingness among civil society to report trafficking cases to officials. The government sometimes pursued cases of forced labor as disparate labor law violations instead of criminal cases of human trafficking or failed to investigate them at all. The government convicted 26 individuals for withholding the passports of employees under the Passport Act of 1966, but it did not report sentencing details for those convicted nor did it prosecute or convict these individuals for potential trafficking crimes.

The government did not adequately address or criminally pursue credible allegations of labor trafficking in the rubber manufacturing and palm oil sectors made by international media, NGOs, and foreign governments. During the reporting period, the Labor Department initiated 57 investigations against employers in the rubber-product manufacturing sector to confirm compliance with housing laws, but it did not investigate these allegations as potential trafficking crimes. In December 2020, the government filed 19 charges against a disposable glove manufacturing company under the Worker’s Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act (Act 226) for inhumane living conditions in migrant workers’ dormitories. The government also filed 30 charges against another rubber glove manufacturer following a series of raids where labor inspectors discovered more than 200 foreign workers living in inhumane and unsanitary conditions. However, the government did not report investigating or prosecuting these companies for human trafficking crimes despite credible evidence of debt-based coercion. The government did not initiate investigations of two Malaysian companies in the palm oil sector for forced labor allegations that occurred during the reporting period. Furthermore, the government did not report if it investigated a formal complaint filed in August 2019 detailing allegations of forced labor at a Malaysian palm oil company’s plantation which was partially owned by the government. The government also did not report investigating or prosecuting, as trafficking crimes, allegations from 2018 that several rubber-product manufacturers exploited migrant workers, including through methods indicative of forced labor.

Corruption and official complicity facilitated trafficking and impeded anti-trafficking efforts. In April 2020, the government charged a police inspector with eight counts of rape and human trafficking for the sexual exploitation of two Mongolian women after he arrested them; the case was pending trial at the end of the reporting period. Between May and October 2020, the government arrested 41 law enforcement personnel, including police, armed forces, and immigration officials, for collusion with human trafficking syndicates; the investigations were ongoing at the end of the reporting period. In 2019, the government charged the former deputy prime minister, who also served as minister of home affairs, with 40 counts of corruption for allegations of receiving kickbacks in visa issuance contracts for foreign workers. Although his trial was scheduled for October 2020, it was postponed due to pandemic-related restrictions; the case was pending at the end of the reporting period. The government did not report convicting any complicit officials for trafficking crimes during the reporting period.

The attorney general’s chambers increased the number of trafficking-specialist deputy public prosecutors from 69 to 73 during the reporting period. The government continued to operate its special trafficking court in Selangor, but it did not implement plans to expand special trafficking courts around the country. The government continued to conduct or support at least 52 anti-trafficking trainings, including hosting virtual trainings—in collaboration with an international organization—for law enforcement personnel and labor inspectors on victim identification SOPs. Nonetheless, officials did not consistently understand the definition of trafficking. Prosecutors often interpreted the definition of trafficking under ATIPSOM to require the physical restraint of a victim to pursue trafficking charges, which meant prosecutors did not pursue many potential trafficking cases under trafficking charges—especially in cases where coercion was a primary element used by traffickers. 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. In addition, NGOs reported some prosecutors did not meet with victims before trial as required by the directive and sometimes only met a victim on the first day of a trial. Law enforcement agencies overwhelmingly cited language barriers with potential victims as an ongoing challenge in their work. While the government sometimes worked with foreign embassies or NGOs to interpret conversations, 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. Furthermore, the absence of shelters in northern Malaysia hindered the ability of those 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 their trafficker’s trial. Although the law permitted victims to testify remotely, authorities generally expected victims to remain in-country pending trial proceedings.


The government demonstrated mixed protection efforts. From April 2020 to March 2021, the government identified and confirmed 119 trafficking victims among 487 potential victims. Of the confirmed victims, 72 were adult women and 47 were men or children. This data compared with the 82 confirmed victims identified and granted full protection orders among the 2,229 potential victims during the previous reporting period. In April 2020, the anti-trafficking council (MAPO) formally adopted victim identification SOPs, which were previously developed in collaboration with NGOs. However, the government did not report systematically implementing these SOPs; thus, authorities continued to punish potential trafficking victims with arrest, detention, and deportation for immigration or prostitution violations. The government continued to focus most of its identification efforts on the use of large-scale police raids of suspected commercial sex establishments; NGOs reported that some police units continued to conduct these raids during the reporting period. The government also conducted raids during the reporting period on factories suspected of having forced labor, the more prevalent trafficking problem in Malaysia. The government did not place adequate attention on the identification of victims of forced labor. Officials reported the government’s identification of labor trafficking victims often relied on reports of abuse from embassies representing foreign workers or from workers’ complaints of non-payment of wages and other violations, rather than proactive screening efforts. Despite adopting victim identification SOPs, NGOs reported police and immigration officers inconsistently applied victim identification procedures during large-scale operations to detect undocumented migrants, which ultimately prevented some foreign victims from being identified as victims and receiving protection services. Law enforcement authorities relied on victims to “self-identify” subsequent to a police raid, rather than proactively identifying victims using standardized procedures or victim-centered screening methods. Furthermore, the government did not partner with NGOs to help screen for trafficking during such raids or among vulnerable populations. The government did not adequately screen asylum-seekers and refugees for indicators of trafficking. 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 suspected victims of trafficking. NGOs relayed that authorities often 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. In January 2021, the government announced a state of emergency and extended power to the armed forces to arrest undocumented migrants—a population highly vulnerable to trafficking—at the border. NGOs reported the government’s focus on illegal immigration during the reporting period resulted in local law enforcement personnel treating potential trafficking victims as illegal migrants and failing to investigate perpetrators for trafficking crimes.

ATIPSOM required that 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 119 certified victims with full protection orders and housed them in government-operated shelters where they had access to food, medical care, social, religious, and income-generating activities, and security. The Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development continued to fund eight shelters for trafficking victims: five government-operated and three NGO-operated. While the law permitted victims who were Malaysian citizens or permanent residents to be placed in the care of family members or a guardian, as opposed to a government shelter or other designated place of refuge, foreign victims were required 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 up to six months. NGOs reported investigative authorities 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. During the 21-day protection order, immigration authorities could offer special immigration passes to victims of labor trafficking that would allow them the right to work. Although the government did not require victims to participate in prosecutions to access special immigration passes, NGOs reported the government required victims seeking these benefits to make an initial deposition in court. While the government reportedly maintained a streamlined process to issue immigration passes, which required a security risk assessment, medical screening, and mental health evaluation by the end of victims’ 21-day interim protection order, no victims had requested an immigration pass nor were any issued during the reporting period. The government continued to lack enough qualified mental health counselors to conduct the required psycho-social evaluation during the appointed 21-day timeframe. In comparison, the government issued 45 special immigration passes to victims during the previous reporting period. Furthermore, victims were not permitted 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 freedom of movement outside of shelters remained restricted to chaperoned trips. NGOs reported these shelter conditions resulted in victims feeling as though they were detained. Of the 119 confirmed victims, the government issued 66 freedom of movement passes, compared with 45 passes for 82 confirmed victims during the previous reporting period. The government issued a work visa to one victim during the reporting period, compared with one in the previous reporting period; the victim later declined the visa and requested repatriation.

NGOs reported medical screening was inadequate for victims upon arrival to government shelters, and shelters lacked full access to reproductive health and dental services. Shelters did not have medical staff on site, and accessing medical care required shelter staff to coordinate transportation and a chaperone. Shelter staff limited victims’ communication, including with family members in their home countries, and the government did not permit victims to possess personal phones in shelters. Despite placing translated shelter rules and regulations in five languages in some government shelters, language barriers continued to impact the government’s victim services. The lack of available and adequate interpretation services prevented some victims from understanding shelter rules and their rights during the judicial process, contributing to stress and reluctance to participate in prosecutions. As in past years, many identified 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 127 Malaysian ringgit (RM) ($32) 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 allocated 750,600 RM ($186,720) to three shelters operated by local NGOs that could assist potential and certified victims, a decrease compared with its allocation of 1 million RM ($248,760) to two shelters in 2019. NGOs provided some victim services, including medical care and counseling, without government-allocated funding; however, NGOs continued to express difficulty maintaining adequate resources and staffing levels to provide consistent services for victims.

The government extended a victim assistance specialist program until March 2023; under the program, two 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. The specialists under this program worked with and provided assistance to 15 victims during the reporting period—a significant decrease from more than 100 victims they assisted during the previous reporting period. For victims who participated in court proceedings, the government instructed prosecutors to request restitution in each case; during the reporting period, prosecutors requested restitution in five cases, compared with 24 in 2019, and secured 86,236 RM ($21,450), compared with 124,410 RM ($30,950). 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.


The government maintained efforts to prevent trafficking. The Ministry of Home Affairs led the MAPO council, which included five enforcement bodies, other government entities, and three NGOs. It continued to meet on a quarterly basis and coordinated interagency anti-trafficking efforts to implement the government’s 2021-2025 national action plan. In 2020, the government allocated 4 million RM ($995,020) to operate the MAPO secretariat, the same amount allocated during the previous reporting period. The government created 11 television and 10 radio anti-trafficking programs and broadcasted more than 3,000 anti-trafficking public service announcements on television stations and more than 55,000 announcements on national radio networks, compared with 27,667 radio broadcasts in 2019; it also created 22 anti-trafficking billboards, issued more than 5,000 mobile trafficking awareness announcements, and continued to distribute brochures raising trafficking awareness in multiple languages during the reporting period. The government also allocated 12,048 RM ($3,000) to a local NGO to implement anti-trafficking awareness campaigns. Labor officials continued to provide banners and other signage at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in holding lounges for newly arrived migrant workers in a range of languages to help educate foreign workers about their rights in Malaysia. The government hosted three public sessions for more than 700 foreign workers in the palm oil industry about their legal rights and for employers on indicators of forced labor. The government continued to operate an anti-trafficking hotline, established in 2018; however, it was attached to a general government hotline staffed by operators who were not trained to work on human trafficking cases. The hotline reportedly received 22 calls during the reporting period, which resulted in the initiation of 22 law enforcement investigations and the identification of seven potential trafficking victims.

The government continued to enforce its ban of Malaysia-based outsourcing companies, which previously often used practices that perpetuated debt-based coercion among migrant workers. The government’s Private Employment Agency Act (PEAA) required all private recruitment agencies to secure a license with the Ministry of Human Resources to recruit foreign workers, including domestic workers. The PEAA capped employee-paid recruitment placement fees at 25 percent of the first month’s salary for Malaysian workers employed within or outside of Malaysia and one month’s salary for non-citizens employed within Malaysia. The law did not define what comprised a “placement fee” and enforcement of this rule was lacking; the majority of migrant workers in Malaysia paid much higher fees to recruitment agents, including in their home country, which contributed to the workers’ vulnerability to debt-based coercion. The government also mandated employers pay the foreign worker levy, a one-time cost paid to the government for any non-Malaysian the company hired, instead of forcing workers to bear the cost. The government did not report investigating any employment agencies for violating the PEAA during the current or previous reporting period. The government continued to use an online application system – launched during the previous reporting period – for employers to renew their workers’ temporary work permits without using a broker. During the reporting period, the government convicted six immigration officers, suspended five officers from their duties, and investigated 28 officers for involvement in providing fraudulent passport stamps to allow foreign workers and undocumented immigrants to stay in Malaysia.

Employment law continued to exclude domestic workers from a number of protections, including maximum working hours and the country’s minimum wage. Civil society observed a lack of adequate efforts to inform migrant workers of their rights and Malaysian labor regulations. The government reported it employed 94 labor inspectors who focused on human trafficking for the entire country, 65 of which were assigned to Sabah where a large number of Malaysia’s palm oil plantations were located; 24 inspectors were assigned to peninsular Malaysia and five assigned to Sarawak. During the reporting period, the government publicly released the results of a survey it funded from June 2018-January 2019 on the prevalence of forced and child labor in the palm oil sector. The study revealed that eight out of every 1,000 palm oil plantation workers were in situations of forced labor, with the prevalence rate considerably higher in Sarawak than in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah. The lack of adequate resources, including for additional labor inspectors, hindered the government’s efforts to adequately identify labor trafficking and enforce the prohibition on employer-perpetrated passport retention, which remained widespread. Labor courts resolved 10,465 labor disputes and ordered employers to provide workers back wages amounting to 18.06 RM ($4.49 million) and levied fines against employers who violated labor laws of 499,570 RM ($124,270). The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex.

Malaysian birth registration policies have left more than 500,000 individuals, including children, stateless and therefore unable to access some government services, including legal employment, increasing their vulnerability to trafficking. In December 2020, the government announced a one-year time period for stateless individuals to apply for citizenship, with significantly reduced wait times for application approvals; however, stateless persons continued to face extraordinary hurdles that prevented them from submitting applications. The law did not permit the government to grant stateless persons asylum or refugee status, which left more than 178,000 refugee-status-seekers and asylum-seekers in Malaysia, including more than 97,000 Rohingya, unable to obtain legal employment, which increased their vulnerability to exploitation. Furthermore, while some refugee community schools operated in Malaysia, the law did not permit stateless and refugee children to attend public schools.


As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Malaysia, and to a lesser extent, traffickers exploit victims from Malaysia abroad. The overwhelming majority of victims are among the estimated two million documented and an even greater number of undocumented migrant workers in Malaysia. Foreign workers constitute more than 30 percent of the Malaysian workforce and typically migrate voluntarily—often through irregular channels—from Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Refugees, asylum-seekers, and stateless individuals who lacked the ability to obtain legal employment in Malaysia are also vulnerable to sex and labor trafficking. Employers, employment agents, and illegal sub-agents exploit some migrants in labor trafficking primarily through debt-based coercion when workers are unable to pay the fees for recruitment and associated travel. Some agents in labor source countries impose onerous fees on workers before they arrive in Malaysia, and Malaysian agents administer additional fees after arrival—in some cases leading to forced labor through debt-based coercion. Large organized crime syndicates are responsible for some instances of trafficking. Employers utilize practices indicative of forced labor, such as restrictions on movement, violating contracts, wage fraud, assault, threats of deportation, the imposition of significant debts, and passport retention—which remained widespread—to exploit some migrant workers in labor trafficking on oil palm and agricultural plantations; at construction sites; in the electronics, garment, and rubber-product industries; and in homes as domestic workers. Malaysian law allows employers to hold workers’ passports with the workers’ permission, but it is difficult to determine if workers have freely given permission, and some employers retain the passports to prevent workers from changing jobs. A 2018 NGO report documented multiple indicators of forced labor associated with the production of palm oil in Malaysia, including coercive practices such as threats, violence, lack of clarity of employment terms and conditions, dependency on the employer, lack of protection by police, debt bondage, high recruitment fees, and involuntary overtime. Traffickers use large smuggling debts incurred by refugees to subject them to debt-based coercion. North Koreans working in Malaysia may have been forced to work by the North Korean government. Chinese nationals working for Chinese government-affiliated construction projects in Malaysia are vulnerable to forced labor. In 2017, hundreds of Chinese nationals working for one of the largest Chinese investment projects in Malaysia in the state of Johor reported exploitative work conditions, including paying high recruitment fees charged by recruitment agents in China, never receiving work visas, and receiving delayed or lower wages than promised.

Traffickers recruit some young foreign women and girls—mainly from Southeast Asia, although also recently from Nigeria—ostensibly for legal work in Malaysian restaurants, hotels, and beauty salons, or for brokered marriages, but instead compel them into commercial sex. Traffickers use fraudulent recruitment practices to lure Rohingya women and girls out of refugee camps in Bangladesh to Malaysia, where they are coerced to engage in commercial sex. Traffickers also exploit some men and children, including Malaysians, into commercial sex. The Malaysian government reported in 2020 that children are vulnerable to online sexual exploitation, including some instances of child sex trafficking. Traffickers exploit Malaysian orphans and children from refugee communities in forced begging. Traffickers increasingly exploit Malaysian women and children in forced labor. Stateless children in Sabah were especially at risk of forced labor in palm oil production, service industries, and in forced begging. Media report young male and female Malaysians pay recruitment fees for promised high-paying jobs, but traffickers transfer them to Cambodia and exploit them and authorities arrest them for immigration violations. In order to circumvent the Indonesian government’s ban on Indonesian migration to 21 countries, some Indonesian workers transit Malaysia legally en route to Middle Eastern countries, where traffickers exploit some in forced labor.

Official complicity continues to undermine anti-trafficking efforts. Ongoing corruption related to processes for foreign nationals to work in Malaysia increases the cost of migration and consequently increases migrant workers’ vulnerability to trafficking through debt-based coercion. Corrupt immigration officials facilitate trafficking by accepting bribes from brokers and smugglers at border crossings, including at airports. Some government officials profit from bribes and direct involvement in extortion from and exploitation of migrants.