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July 21, 2009 (DVB), Malaysian authorities have arrested nine people for their role in an international trafficking syndicate that involved the sale of Rohingya refugees from Burma, a top officer said today.
Among the nine people are five immigration officials from Malaysia's southern Johor department. The four other suspects are bus drivers who were arrested for allegedly transporting the refugees to the Thai-Malaysia border.
The director of the Criminal Investigation Department, Mohammad Bakri Zinin, said that police had been monitoring the activities of the nine suspects, aged between 25 and 40, since March this year.
"According to a victim, the suspects were directly involved in human trafficking, starting from the Malaysia-Thai border to the rat trail believed to be their exit point to international countries," he told a press conference in Malaysia today.
"Upon reaching the exit point, the victims were handed over to a syndicate before being taken to a neighbouring country or sent back to Malaysia to work as forced labour."
Bakri said the refugees were charged between 300 to 600 ringgit ($US85 to $US169) each and those who could not afford to pay would be sold to owners of fishing industries in Thailand until they worked off their debts.
The suspects have been arrested under Section 13 of the Anti-Trafficking in Person Act 2007 which, if convicted, carries a maximum sentence of 20 years and a fine.
Last month, the United States' annual Trafficking in Persons report said that Malaysia is failing to comply with minimum standards to eliminate trafficking and "is not making significant efforts to do so".
The report put Malaysia back on its blacklist, following its elevation to 'watch list' status in 2008 after finding that it was "making significant efforts" to comply with standards.
Malaysia's deputy home minister Abu Seman Yusop stated the re-listing was unfair and that the authorities were doing their best to prevent trafficking. "We will have to consider our next action in opposing the re-listing of our country on the blacklist," he said.
As a result of the recent findings the state could face sanctions such as the withholding of non-humanitarian, non-trade related US aid.
Migrant worker groups question the Malaysian government's commitment to tackling the problem, seeing the recent arrests as a temporary response to the US state report.
The Malaysian government has been criticised for repeatedly denying trafficking exists when the issue has been highlighted.
"I am not confident that the Malaysian government will continue to tackle the issue of immigration officials trafficking refugees," said Irene Fenandez from International Migrant Alliance based in Malaysia.
"The system is very entrenched and so widespread that it will take continuous international pressure to keep the government cracking down on immigration officials."
NGO's working with the Rohingya blame the trafficking on the Burmese government for forcing the minority ethnic group out of the country.
"The Rohingya are driven out of their own country by the Burmese military regime and then some are not officially recognised as refugees," said Salim Ula, spokesperson for the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation.
"This makes them vulnerable in countries such as Malaysia where they are not properly protected."
The Bengali-speaking Rohingya from Burma are denied citizenship under Burma’s 1982 citizenship law, which leaves them out of the 135 ethnic groups officially recognised by the state.
Reporting by Alex Ellgee