Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara Monday vowed to find and deport all illegal immigrants in the city—especially brothel operators and prostitutes.
“Illegal immigrants without visas must be sent back,” he said. “Brothel workers must be sent back…. Find them and bring them to me, and I will send them back.”
The speech, delivered at a weekly meeting of city officials, addressed illegal immigration generally, but some officials said foreign prostitutes and brothel operators—the overwhelming majority of whom are Vietnamese—were the intended target.
It came just after the latest in a series of trafficking cases that suggest that Vietnamese girls and women are increasingly being taken through Cambodia to Malaysia to work as prostitutes, possibly as part of an organized ring, according to officials.
One human rights worker said that when authorities use immigration laws to target prostitutes—and even brothel bosses—they are essentially punishing the victims of trafficking. Meanwhile, the ringleaders who mastermind the operation are never touched.
Trafficked girls and women, many of whom are sold or tricked into prostitution, “should be considered victims, not criminals,” the worker said.
But the powerful gangsters who run trafficking operations usually have police protection, the worker said.
Toch Ngem, chief of the anti-trafficking police bureau, said Monday that police have arrested three people for allegedly holding eight girls and women in a Daun Penh brothel, some of whom were to go to Malaysia.
The three—a Vietnamese man named Keav Ham and his two wives—were questioned at the Municipal Court Monday. Toch Ngem said Keav Ham admitted he was procuring the girls for a Chinese boss, whom he refused to name.
Toch Ngem said police feared gangsters would break the three out of police custody. They are being held in the Ministry of Interior.
Four of the alleged victims—a 19-year-old Vietnamese woman and three Vietnamese girls aged 13, 13 and 14—said Monday that they were merely visiting relatives in Phnom Penh. They said they were either staying at the house, which they claimed was not a brothel, or happened to be visiting when police raided it.
Police said they were lying to protect Keav Ham, who had threatened them.
When police raided the house, one of the women was being examined by Keav Ham. She was naked and he was inspecting her body for disfiguring marks or scars, Toch Ngem said.
He said the women had been photographed so that fake Cambodian passports could be made for them and they could go on to Malaysia to work as prostitutes there.
Toch Ngem met with the Malaysian ambassador late Monday to discuss the possible existence of a trafficking route through Cambodia.
Another of the victims, a 13-year-old Cambodian girl from Kompong Speu province, said she knew she was being sold into prostitution after her aunt left her at the house.
The Cambodian, a tiny girl with childlike features who spoke in a voice so soft it was barely audible, said she was treated well by the house owners, but knew the place was a brothel and was afraid.
“When I got there I realized it, and I thought I had no other choice,” she said.
Police said her aunt sold her for $75.
(Additional reporting by Molly Ball)