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Exploring the relationship between drug trafficking and human trafficking: Women facing the death penalty in Malaysia


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Women's March 2019, Kuala Lumpur. Picture by Michelle Ding on Unsplash.

As part of my research into the experiences of women sentenced to death for drug offences in Malaysia, I explore the possible nexus between drug trafficking and human trafficking. According to the latest statistics from Amnesty International, there are currently 141 women on death row in this jurisdiction: 95% of whom have received the death sentence for drug trafficking, and 86% of whom are foreign nationals. This mirrors broader trends within the Southeast Asian region, where non-violent drug offences are the most common reason for women receiving the death sentence, and where many condemned to death are ‘foreign, from poor countries; many are mules’. I argue that due to the postcolonial economic order and the ‘feminisation of migration’ within the region, syndicates are capitalising on the transnational flow of female labour – in Malaysia alone, there are approximately 300,000-400,000 female migrant domestic workers – and using women as willing or unwitting drug couriers. 


Indeed, from my review of 146 cases of women sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Malaysia between 1985 and 2019 and 47 ‘elite’ interviews with lawyers, judges, prosecutors, police, NGO activists, journalists, consular officials, journalists and religious counsellors working on this issue, I discovered several common features among these cases. The majority of the women were arrested at Malaysian airports, having couriered drugs across the border either in a bag, strapped to their person or swallowed. From my review of the women’s socio-economic backgrounds, I found that many were employed within feminised and precarious industries, such as short-term domestic work, and jobs within the entertainment and hospitality sectors. Moreover, many claimed to have been tricked into smuggling drugs, and stated that they had instead been paid to carry a bag across a border containing legal substances (some examples included clothing samples, cosmetics, electronics). Others alleged that they were recruited for a job abroad (as a domestic worker or in a factory) and were duped into carrying a bag to Malaysia by their recruiter.


This brings me onto a key case involving a Filipina domestic worker, Mary Jane Veloso, who was sentenced to death for drug trafficking in neighbouring Indonesia in 2010. Veloso, a single mother of two, was recruited for a job as a domestic worker in Malaysia, and was given a bag of clothing to carry with her by her recruiter. Whilst transiting in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, she was stopped at customs and 2.6 kg of heroin were found in her luggage. She was sentenced to death later that year. It is argued that Veloso is a victim of human trafficking due to the fact that she was sent across a border to carry out an illegal activity against her will. Charges were brought against her recruiters in the Philippines, and in early 2020 they were found guilty of human trafficking in a separate but related case. This case has galvanised migrant workers’ rights groups, women’s groups, and death penalty abolitionists in the region, who argue that many other women on death row in Southeast Asia are also victims of human trafficking. Indeed, in many ways, drug trafficking does fit within the United Nations’ Palermo Protocol definition of human trafficking, particularly in terms of methods of recruitment and transportation, and the exploitation of vulnerability. 


However, within the border criminological paradigm, we find a proliferation of literature critiquing anti-trafficking measures. Often this work challenges the disproportionate focus upon identifying and protecting female sex-trafficking victims, as opposed to tackling other forms of cross-border exploitation, such as labour abuse. Often the profiling for sex-trafficking victims occurs along gendered and racialised lines, and leads to the policing of women’s sexuality, and ultimately, restrictions upon women’s mobility. Migrant domestic workers in particular are already subject to undue levels of surveillance and criminalisation at both the border and at their places of employment. Not to mention – as highlighted by postcolonial feminists – the way in which female trafficking victims are framed is often problematic, and frequently reinforces the stereotype of the ‘Third-World victim subject’


My research in Malaysia finds that although drug trafficking under duress or deception was not usually conceptualised (nor recognised by law) as a form of human trafficking – due to a perception amongst law-enforcement that ‘drugs are different’ and drug trafficking is an especially egregious crime – there were certainly overlaps in terms of the ‘modus operandi’ of syndicates. On the most extreme end, there were cases of women whose lives were threatened if they failed to comply, as well as women being locked up in hotels, drugged and forced to swallow drugs or insert them into orifices. Many of the women’s passports were controlled by their recruiters, as were the details of their travel (which were usually only revealed to them at the very last minute), and often these journeys included stops at multiple international locations. Deception was frequently a feature of these cases, and indeed, in some instances, women were recruited via online romance scams where they were deceived by their online ‘lovers’ into carrying drugs. 


However, as the border criminological literature warns, I found evidence of drug-trafficking scams being invoked as a reason to limit women’s mobility: indeed, in 2008, the Malaysian Foreign and Home Ministries unsuccessfully proposed that in order for women to travel abroad alone, they must submit a letter of permission from their employer or parents. And, in response to specific death penalty cases, such as that of Wilfrida Soik, a mentally unwell Indonesian migrant worker who was sentenced to death in Malaysia, the Indonesian government threatened to ban Indonesian migrant workers from travelling to work there

Yet, overall, any discussions about the possible nexus between drug trafficking and human trafficking are largely academic in jurisdictions like Malaysia where the mandatory death sentence is yet to be fully repealed (some limited reforms occurred in 2017, but the death penalty still operates largely mandatorily in practice). Until mitigating factors can be freely considered in these capital cases, any links to human trafficking are largely irrelevant. Thus, I echo calls to abolish the mandatory (and indeed discretionary) death sentence for non-violent drug offences: a punishment grossly incommensurate with the crime.

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Lucy Harry

Lucy Harry is a Doctoral Candidate at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, and a member of Oxford’s Death Penalty Research Unit. Her research focuses on the experiences of women sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Malaysia. Twitter: @lucyharry_

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