Saturday, August 30, 2014

US visa waiver hopes in jeopardy?

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s hope of getting visa-free status for its citizens to visit the US may be scuttled by the country’s reputation as a human trafficking hub.

According to sources, the country’s current Tier-3 ranking in the US Trafficking in Persons Report, which is the lowest, makes it is unlikely that the country will make the grade for the visa-free facility.

“Malaysia must step up its efforts to curb human trafficking or else do not expect the US to approve the request for visa-free status. There are also other issues such as lax border and aviation security for instance,” said a source close to the US embassy here.

The visa rule came into focus recently after Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced that visa-free travel to the US could be possible within 18 months. He said that the visa-free programme would be implemented in three stages once the Immigration Department fulfils all requirements — the first stage for ministers and government officers; second for businessmen and third for the general public.

But as long as there is a lack of awareness of addressing the cross-border corruption that fuels human trafficking, there is a high likelihood that Malaysians travelling to the US will still have to put up with tedious visa processing when 2016 comes around.

Immigration Department sources told The Edge Financial Daily that they had increased security efforts, including enhanced security screening systems at entry points around the country.

“We have also recently held a series of meetings with all the ministries and agencies concerned, while we are also ironing out all requirements necessary for the US Visa Waiver Programme,” said the source.

In April, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said the US had committed to providing technical briefings on security requirements and information sharing agreements.

Under the programme, citizens of participating countries will be allowed to travel to the US without a visa and stay for up to 90 days. Presently, there are 37 countries enjoying the benefits of the programme, including Singapore, Taiwan, Brunei and Japan.

US President Barack Obama, during his visit here in April, gave some indication of the groundwork that needed to be done before the programme could be introduced, saying that the US was prepared to work with Malaysia towards visa exemptions, but was realistic.

“It will take time … It is not something that happens overnight. We have to make sure the kind of information sharing, the reporting about lost and stolen passports, terrorist watch lists and others are ironed out,” Obama told a joint press conference with Najib.

Department director-general Datuk Aloyah Mamat when contacted said her department is working hard along with the relevant quarters to improve the country’s ranking for human trafficking.

“We are working on it … you will see the results soon,” she said, declining to reveal more.

It is understood, however, that the Immigration Department, which has officers travelling frequently to the US to hasten the implementation of the visa programme, has been given 18 months to comply with all requirements to at least get the Tier-3 ranking reviewed.

Down the list
In the recently released Trafficking in Persons Report 2014, Malaysia and Thailand were downgraded to the lowest Tier-3 status — making them among the world’s worst centres for human trafficking, an underground industry worth US$32 billion (RM100.8 billion) worldwide, according to the United Nations.

Following this downgrade, Malaysia is now in the same category as Venezuela, North Korea and Syria.

For failing to comply with the minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking, Malaysia could face the risk of certain multinationals reconsidering their investments in industries accused of using trafficked labour — such as fisheries.

The country could also end up losing US non-humanitarian and non-trade-related aid as well as incurring the US opposition to aid from international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Some foreign reports described Malaysia as having made inadequate efforts to improve its flawed victim protection regime and said it investigated fewer cases of human trafficking in 2013 than in 2012.

Speaking confidentially, a highly placed source from the Home Ministry said the poor ranking in combating human trafficking in the country is due to the attitude of some people in the government who view this problem as insignificant.

“The problem of human trafficking here is simply due to the lack of attention paid by the authorities and also the limited awareness among the people.

“Many Malaysians, even those in government departments, are clueless as to how rampant this problem is here. If you want to know how bad the situation is, just take a walk along Jalan Bukit Bintang [Kuala Lumpur] after dark,” the source said.

He said though neighbouring Thailand may be reputed for its vice activities, those involved in the industry are locals, while in Malaysia, prostitution involves women from all around the globe.

“Sure … the authorities can continue denying this, but it’s a fact. Just look at the number of websites mushrooming, offering all kinds of sexual services.

“High-level corruption and strong links between the syndicates allow these vice rings to operate.

“The sad part is there is a constant demand for these women,” he said, adding that the vice syndicate web is just too wide and would require a massive effort to eradicate.

Written by Patrick Sennyah & V Shankar Ganesh, (contributor)

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on August 28, 2014.

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