The Malaysian Cabinet has approved a bill to fight the trafficking of women and children, a move welcomed Monday by an activist group that said it was the country's first law to fight the "huge problem."
In a statement Sunday, the government said the bill would make it easier for police, immigration departments and other authorities to pursue, prosecute and convict alleged human traffickers.
The bill on Anti-Trafficking in Persons was approved by the Cabinet on April 11, and it is to be submitted to parliament soon, said the statement. Approval of the bill in the legislature is considered a formality.
The Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Shahrizat Abdul Jalil said in the statement that the problem of human trafficking is not alarming in Malaysia.
But the government is "committed to taking comprehensive measures to combat human trafficking," she said, noting that many victims are brought here for prostitution, forced labor and other illicit purposes.
The ministry plans to set up shelters for women and children who have fallen victim to human traffickers, and alert the public to the issue through awareness campaigns.
The statement did not give any details on the bill's content. Tenaganita, a local nonprofit organization, said it also did not have any more information on the bill.
"We are looking forward to the bill, but we are also concerned" that no details of the legislation have been released, Tenaganita director Irene Fernandez said. "There is a total lack of transparency regarding the whole bill."
She said she hoped the bill would adequately address such issues as witness protection, support mechanisms and penalties.
According to police statistics in the ministry's statement, almost 400 foreign women were rescued "from vice" between 2004 and last year.
Fernandez said those figures seemed skewed. She said trafficking of women into Malaysia was a "huge problem" and estimated that thousands were being brought into the country illegally.
This was only the "very tip of the iceberg," with likely thousands being trafficked and forced to work in the sex industry, she said, adding, "The industry is so lucrative."