A young refugee from Burma of Chin origin leaves after her classes at a flat in Kuala Lumpur on December 4, 2008.

© 2008 Reuters

(New York) - Changes to Malaysia's anti-trafficking law will undermine efforts to combat human trafficking and reduce protections for undocumented migrants, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Najib Razak. Recent amendments to the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act (ATIP Act) will go into effect in October 2010.

The amendments will harm trafficking victims by making it more likely that they will be treated as undocumented migrants subject to immediate deportation, undermining government efforts to counter trafficking, Human Rights Watch said. The revised law also narrows the legal definition of "human trafficking," undercutting protections for children and adults who are tricked, rather than forced, into being trafficked.

"If Malaysia wants to end human trafficking, it needs to start treating trafficking victims as victims," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Prime Minister Najib should return the amended anti-trafficking law to Parliament to stop trafficking victims from being re-victimized and to ensure that Malaysian law reflects international best practice."

International law and practice recognize that "people smuggling" and human trafficking are dissimilar and require different law enforcement strategies. The revised Anti-Trafficking Act incorporates provisions on smuggling that are contrary to Malaysia's obligations under the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, which Malaysia ratified in 2009.

Any changes to strengthen Malaysian law against people smuggling should be incorporated into the Immigration Act and other legislation focused on border control, not anti-trafficking legislation, Human Rights Watch said.

"Threatening to imprison migrants for people smuggling is a surefire way to push them underground and dry up any cooperation between them and the authorities to combat human trafficking," Robertson said.

Human Rights Watch also urged the Malaysian government to provide effective protection of the basic rights of undocumented migrants and refugees. The government should permit the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees timely access to migrants seeking asylum and immediately release from detention all those determined to be refugees.

"With more and more people fleeing desperate conditions and political persecution in Burma, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and other countries, it's critical for Malaysia to be willing to receive and help refugees," Robertson said.