Simon Karunagaram has worked with human rights in Malaysia for over 15 years, and now he will spend three months in Lund doing research on protection of the victims of human trafficking. Simon is one of four fellows from Asia who are at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute this fall.
Simon is a Deputy Secretary at the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia where he started working in 2001, only one year after its inception. Before that, he worked for an NGO, mainly in the area of human rights education. He says he became interested in human rights during the last years of university.
Back where it all started
For Simon, it all started during his years at the National University of Malaysia, where he studied sociology and anthropology. The universities in Malaysia are very controlled, he says, and the students have to obtain consent from the authorities at the university to do any activities outside of campus.
The campus was surrounded by rubber and oil palm plantations, and Simon and his friends began to doubt the plantation workers’ situation. They wanted to investigate it further. “I joined an organization where we did activities outside campus,” Simon says.
Initially they tried to get approvals from the authorities, but when they didn’t get the permissions, they continued their work anyway. “Because when you do something good, you don’t have to get permission from anyone,” says Simon.
The plantation workers were some of the poorest people in Malaysia. The children had neither enough food, nor access to good books, and Simon’s student group understood that this was a result of their parents’ working conditions.
“We started with providing free education for the kids in the plantation. The schools in the plantations are only partly supported by the government since the lands are private property. Both the education and the facilities are low quality. The workers were exploited by the companies and they did not have a secure wage. That’s when I got involved in workers’ issues,” says Simon.
After graduating from the university, Simon and his friends started an NGO called Community Development Center. They financed it themselves, with support from friends. “We continued to fight for the right of the plantation workers, with the main goal of getting a monthly wage for the workers. That was the key demand,” he says.
When they started getting positive results, the workers started joining the movement as members. “Many felt they wanted to do what they could for others,” he says. “We got more and more complaints from industrial workers and they wanted our help. The working classes have this problem everywhere.”
The RWI research project
Those experiences from the plantation still have an impact on Simon in his work today. Now his research project at RWI is focusing on how to give protection to victims of human trafficking. “I have chosen to work with this topic because it’s a huge problem in Malaysia, as it’s often the destination country. We receive migrant workers who are potential victims of human trafficking,” he says.
Simon says enforcement agencies are not sufficiently trained to identify or protect the victims of human trafficking. When victims are rescued from the traffickers in Malaysia, they are placed in a shelter for up to two years before it can be proved that they’re victims of trafficking and the process of prosecution is over. “It’s like a detention center where the victims can’t move or contact family members except one 15-minute phone call a month. There’s no psychological counselling and no activities. It’s like a prison. The government says they want to protect the victims from the perpetrators – that’s their justification. That problem is my project.”
The challenges with human rights work in Malaysia
It’s not unproblematic working with human rights in Malaysia, Simon says. It’s not a common subject in the education system, not even at the tertiary level. Hence, lack of understanding and consistent propaganda by the government has posed greater challenges in the work of human rights.
“Human rights is not a friendly term in Malaysia. It has been seen as a Western concept”
“The government has been playing this propaganda, promoting something called ‘Asian values,’” he says. “The multi-ethnic and multi-religious composition has made the situation even more delicate, where human rights, despite being a universal value, must be dealt with carefully. However, being an NHRI, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia always aims to uphold the universal values and international human rights standards.”
Hopes with the RWI fellowship program
During his time in Lund, Simon hopes to learn more about research methodologies, and sees the fellowship program as a small step in addressing the complex issue of human trafficking, hoping it will help in combating the problem as a whole. “With the help of RWI, I am being optimistic in developing a human rights training module for the law enforcement agencies and government officials in order to provide them with a better perspective on the global phenomena of human trafficking and better protection for trafficked persons,” he says.