In the first of six articles in a series on child safety, we look at the phenomenon of missing children in Malaysia.
BY now, the story of how a toddler was snatched from the compound of a terrace house in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, is well known.
Expatriate mother Sarah Joseph ran frantically after the men who had snatched her 20-month-old son Freddie, but she couldn’t stop them from driving away with him. The news quickly spread through social media and made headlines, as cases of children’s abduction always do.
There was certainly a collective sigh of relief when Freddie was found 18 hours after his abduction, but we could only imagine Joseph’s anguish and fears in the hours that he was missing. Freddie’s case had a happy ending, but some parents never see their lost child again.
Five-year-old T. Sathiskumar went missing at a food court in Permatang Pauh, Penang, over a year ago and has still not been found.
“Once a child is reported missing, the police will begin investigations to ascertain whether the case should be classified under “missing” or “kidnapped”. If no calls of ransom have been placed, my unit, D11, will proceed with the investigation. If it is indeed a kidnapping case, it will be passed on to the D9 Special Investigation Division,” said principal assistant director of the Sexual and Child Investigation department ACP Hamidah Yunus.
In the absence of criminal intent, almost all the missing children cases handled by Hamidah’s division were quickly resolved. All the children below 12 reported missing last year and this year have been found except for Sathiskumar. A significant number of cases involve boys; in 2011, 45 of the 69 missing children were boys and in 2012, 40 out of 68.
“Most times, the missing child usually appears the next day, after having spent a night at a friend’s place,” Hamidah explained.
When their children do not come home, worried parents would lodge police reports. “Some children, who have stayed out too late playing, may also opt to hide out at a friend’s house for fear of being punished by their parents,” Hamidah added.
But not all cases of missing children are so innocuous, and more than half of those below 12 reported missing between January 2011 and October 2012 were not found.
According to the statistics on missing persons on the Royal Malaysia Police website, only 103 of the 210 children below 12 reported missing during that period were found. That means 107 children below 12 were still missing when the data was compiled.
The Child Rights Coalition Malaysia reported that in March 2012, the government confirmed that from 2008 to 2012, a total of 977 survivors of human trafficking were rescued and placed under a Protection Order (PO); of these, 122 were children. The actual number of trafficked children in Malaysia is believed to be much higher.
“These figures invoke three fundamental questions: Why did the children go missing in the first place? What was done or is being done to ensure that children who were found do not go missing again? What happened to the children who were not found?” quizzed Unicef Malaysia senior child protection specialist Phenny Kakama.
Kakama said that in Malaysia, missing children are commonly attributed to running away from home, with some cases associated with abduction and sexual abuse.
“The reasons for children running away from home may include the lack of adequate care and attention from their parents or guardians, peer pressure and the search for freedom or independence.
"Elsewhere in the world, children can disappear as a result of parental disputes over custody. In this case one of the parents may take the child and go 'underground'.
"Many children may be abducted and sold for body parts; girls especially are kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery and exploitation. Children may also run away from home due to abuse and neglect," said Kakama.
One of these unfortunate children who never made it home was four-year-old Nurul Nadirah Abdullah, also known as Dirang, who went missing in March last year after she walked to a shop near her home to buy eggs and instant noodles. Her charred remains were found a week later at an oil palm plantation 20km away from her home. Supposedly lured by the treat of a sweet, Nurul was abducted, molested and later burned by contract worker Muidin Maidin. He has since been arrested, tried and sentenced to death.
Another high-profile case was that of eight-year-old Nurin Jazlin Jazimin who went missing after she went to a pasar malam in Wangsa Maju, Kuala Lumpur, in 2007. Her body was found a month later, stuffed into a gym bag and left in front of a shop lot. Footage from a CCTV installed nearby revealed that she was last seen being dragged into a white van. She had been sexually assaulted and murdered.
Nurin’s case caused national outrage and led to the creation of the alert system Talian Nur.
When a child under 12 is perceived to be in immediate danger, the police can opt to trigger the child kidnapping and missing alert system, National Urgent Response (Nur) Alert.
Since its launch in 2011, Nur Alert has only been activated for 10 missing-child cases.
“Once a missing person’s report is lodged, we will alert everyone internally. We must be very careful when it comes to sharing information publicly about a missing child, as we may be unknowningly endangering his or her life, especially in kidnapping cases. That’s why we are selective when it comes to using Nur Alert,” Hamidah explained.
The Nur Alert is only used when a child below 12 goes missing.
“When a child goes missing, it is very important that a report is made to the police with minimum delay to enable the police to follow up on the matter immediately. Members of the public need to be aware of where they can go and what help they can expect in the case of a missing child. They need to be aware of what they need to do to keep their children safe. Children themselves need to be aware of the risks and vulnerabilities they may be exposed to within the immediate and wider environment, and to be supported to understand what they can do or cannot do when confronted with a life-threatening situation,” said Kakama.
> This Child Safety Awareness campaign was brought to you by RHB in collaboration with The Star. As part of its corporate social responsibility initiative, RHB Bank has been working in partnership with the Royal Malaysia Police since 2007 on 'Reuniting Families – Missing Children', a programme that utilises the bank’s existing facilities as an alternative channel of communication to disseminate information and locate missing children. To date, RHB has assisted in four cases of missing children.