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 25 Apr 2009

Malaysia vows to probe Myanmar human trafficking

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Malaysia's prime minister on Friday vowed to investigate a scathing report by US lawmakers saying thousands of Myanmar refugees were handed over to human traffickers and ended up working in Thai brothels, reported the Associated Press.

The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations said in the report that illegal Myanmar migrants deported from Malaysia were often forced to work in brothels, fishing boats and restaurants across the border in Thailand if they had no money to purchase their freedom.

The report was based on a yearlong review by committee staff who spoke to migrants from military-ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma, and human rights activists.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said his government hopes to get more information on the report from US authorities.

"We will take appropriate action," Najib told reporters. "We do not want Malaysia to be used as a point for human trafficking ... but we need to know more facts."

Earlier this year, former Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar dismissed claims of human trafficking at the border as "wild allegations." But national police chief Musa Hassan said earlier this month that Malaysian and Thai police and immigration officials were investigating the claims.

Many who flee persecution in Myanmar try to stay illegally in Malaysia, which does not recognise refugees and can arrest them, whip them as punishment then deport them.

According to the Senate committee report, "a few thousand" Myanmar migrants in recent years might have become victims of extortion and trafficking once they were deported across Malaysia's northern border with Thailand.

"Upon arrival at the Malaysia-Thailand border, human traffickers reportedly take possession of the migrants," the report said.

The report quoted one unidentified migrant as saying women "are sold at a brothel if they look good. If they are not beautiful, they might sell them at a restaurant or housekeeping job."

It called on Malaysia to investigate and prosecute "the trafficking, selling and slavery of Burmese and other migrants."

"The prospect that Burmese migrants, having fled the heavy hand of the Burmese junta, only to find themselves in harms' way in Malaysia seemed beyond belief," it said.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Malaysia's government "should act on this US Senate report to protect the rights of refugees and victims of human trafficking."

The UN refugee agency has registered 47,600 refugees living in Malaysia as of the end of March, of whom 42,300 were from Myanmar.

Malaysian opposition politician Lim Kit Siang also urged the government to "respond with instant action" to the US report, saying it is "not only most damaging to Malaysia's international image but raises grave questions about Malaysia's human rights commitment."


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