The number of Cambodian women now thought to be caught in Saudi Arabia’s sex industry after being trafficked in the past year has risen to more than 20, officials said on Wednesday.
However, the government remained tight-lipped about its efforts to rescue the women, while two Pakistani men and a Cambodian woman were charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for attempting to traffic three women to the Middle Eastern country.
Pakistani nationals Niaz Ahmed, 55, and Yazef Ahmed, 24, and a suspected broker, Cambodian Bin Nhor, 72, were arrested in Phnom Penh on Sunday and Monday on suspicion of attempting to traffic the women out of the country.
Under questioning, the suspects admitted that they had planned to send the women—who had been lured from Tbong Khmum province on promises of well-paid work—to Saudi Arabia, and confessed to previously sending more than 10 women to the repressive country, said Keo Thea, chief of the city’s anti-human trafficking bureau.
Contacted on Wednesday, Mr. Thea said that his officials now believed the number of Cambodian women trafficked to Saudi Arabia for sex was double that figure.
“We have concluded that the two Pakistani nationals brought many Khmer women to Arabia in the past year,” Mr. Thea said.
“We don’t have a document to prove the real number of Khmer women that they sent to Arabia, but through the investigation of our officials, [we think] more than 20 women were sent,” he said.
The two Pakistani men were working as part of a covert trafficking network based in the oil-rich nation, he said.
“I wish to say that this is an unofficial company in Arabia and they are working secretly and illegally with the two Pakistani nationals,” Mr. Thea said.
Chiv Phally, deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department, said he had received information that Saudi women had previously traveled to Cambodia to take women to the Middle East.
“We have received information that there are some women from Saudi Arabia and they attempted to bring our Khmer women to be trafficked in Arabia,” he said.
Mr. Phally declined to comment on how many Cambodian women he believed were currently in Saudi Arabia, but suspected there could be Saudi traffickers currently hiding in Phnom Penh.
“We are seeking to find those people but we are now still working to collect information to arrest the offenders. So that’s why we are not able to release the information, because they will escape,” he said.
Heng Sour, spokesman for the Ministry of Labor, said his ministry, along with the Foreign Affairs and Interior ministries, had launched a joint operation “to rescue our people in Saudi Arabia,” declining to elaborate.
Chou Bun Eng, secretary-general of the Interior Ministry’s committee to fight human trafficking and sexual exploitation, said she “could not broadcast information” on the case while it was under investigation.
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said he had “no information” on the investigation.
The Pakistani men and the suspected Cambodian broker were charged with unlawful removal for cross-border transfer, said Kol Bon, deputy prosecutor at the municipal court. If found guilty, the trio face between seven to 15 years in prison.
(Additional reporting by George Wright)