Two Pakistani men arrested on suspicion of attempting to traffic three women to Pakistan for prostitution said on Tuesday that they had, in fact, planned to send the women to Saudi Arabia, where they had already sent more than 10 Cambodian women to enter the sex trade, an official said.
Police said the government was already seeking ways to track down the previous victims, though officials at the ministries involved in those efforts could not be reached for specifics.
Pakistani nationals Niaz Ahmed, 55, and Yazef Ahmed, 24, and the suspected broker, Cambodian Bin Nhor, 72, were arrested on Sunday and Monday in Phnom Penh on suspicion of attempting to traffic three Cambodian women out of the country. The three would-be victims were also detained.
Under questioning on Tuesday, the two Pakistani nationals and the broker admitted that the three women were bound for Saudi Arabia, said Keo Thea, chief of the city’s anti-human trafficking bureau.
“We arrested the two Pakistani nationals and an elderly Khmer woman because they attempted to bring people to traffic to Saudi Arabia and they don’t have contracts with recruitment companies,” Mr. Thea said, adding that the three women bound for the Middle East were released after “being educated” by officials.
According to Mr. Thea, the elderly broker had located numerous women in her home province of Tbong Khmum on behalf of the Pakistani men. Once she persuaded the women to travel to Phnom Penh on the promise of well-paid work, the two men would send them to Thailand and then Saudi Arabia, where they were destined for prostitution.
“The elderly woman collected the Khmer women from villages in Tbong Khmum province and she provided the women to the Pakistani nationals,” he said. “They would attempt to send the women to Thailand by bus and they make passports and visas to export the women to Saudi Arabia.”
“Through the investigations of our officials, the two Pakistani nationals brought the Khmer women to Saudi Arabia many times,” he added. “But they confessed that they just brought them a few times with more than 10 women who were trafficked into prostitution.”
Efforts were already being made by the labor and foreign affairs ministries to locate the women in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Thea said, adding that this was the first time his department had thwarted efforts to traffic women to Saudi Arabia.
“We now are continuing to investigate because the case of trafficking is hot,” he said.
Labor and foreign affairs officials could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Contacted later in the afternoon, Mr. Thea said the three suspects were being questioned at the municipal court for unlawful removal for cross-border transfer, which carries a sentence of between seven to 15 years. All three would return to court for further questioning today, he said.
Helen Sworn, founder and international director of anti-trafficking organization Chab Dai, said the nature of the Saudi state threw up especially complicated obstacles when dealing with victims of trafficking.
“It’s a massive challenge, trafficking to the Middle East now,” Ms. Sworn said.
Sharia law in Saudi Arabia makes it “much, much more challenging for us to help [the government] see that these are actually victims of trafficking or some type of human rights abuse, when there isn’t a strong human rights framework,” she said.
“What we’re trying to do first of all is work out the legal framework in those Middle Eastern destination countries and how best can we understand [it] so we can advocate for our clients—and others who are going there—to help protect them,” she said.
“Of course, prevention is always better than cure, but we have to prepare for both.”
In February, Cambodia signed a deal with Saudi Arabia paving the way for negotiations to work out the final details of two deals—one specifically for maids—that could reopen legal channels for Cambodians to find jobs there.
Although Human Rights Watch has highlighted the “rampant” abuse of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, including forced labor and exploitative conditions, the Labor Ministry says the intergovernmental deals will ensure the safety of Cambodians in Saudi Arabia.
(Additional reporting by George Wright)