Three Cambodian women who were recently freed from the Malaysian sex trade have returned to their provincial homes, as more than two dozen other Cambodians remain indentured in various exploitative trades in Malaysia, NGO officials said this week.
Three Cambodian women, who had been trafficked into the Malaysian sex trade and jailed on illegal immigration charges, were repatriated as victims of trafficking on Jan 13. A fourth woman will be repatriated after she recovers from a premature childbirth.
The three women headed home to Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces on Friday after being sheltered by the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center for the past two weeks, the center’s director, Chanthol Oung, said on Monday.
“They are still very frightened and very, very frustrated,” she said. The women will receive psychological counseling and medical checkups, she added.
Although the women have escaped their captors, they still may not be free from danger, Chanthol Oung said.
“We are most concerned about their security because they are returning to their community where the trafficker is still living,” she said. “The trafficker might try to bribe or threaten the family not to bring charges against them.”
Banteay Meanchey’s O’Chrou district police arrested a mother and daughter last year suspected of trafficking the women to Malaysia but released them due to a lack of evidence, Chanthol Oung said.
Local NGO Protection for Juvenile Justice and the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in the Mekong Sub-Region have filed complaints against the traffickers with the Banteay Meanchey provincial court, said UNIAP coordinator Hang Vannak.
But finding the suspected traffickers may be difficult, he said, since they are rumored to have fled to Thailand.
The government and NGOs are calling the women’s return as a success story. But these women represent only a small portion of the many Cambodians who have been tricked or forced into sexual servitude and other exploitative trades, Chanthol Oung said.
On a fact-finding mission to Malaysia last month, delegates from CWCC and other NGOs discovered more than 24 Cambodians who were lured by promises of high-paying jobs but ended up with paltry wages in unsafe brothels, on construction sites or in factories, Chanthol Oung said.
Tracking these victims may prove even more difficult than the case of the four women who landed in a Malaysian jail, she said, as most of them steer clear of the police.
“They’re not in jail because they dare not escape to the police,” she said. “Many try to find a way to work at a plantation, but when they arrive in Malaysia, they are disturbed by gangsters or treated badly and get very, very low money.”
CWCC plans to send a team of lawyers to Kuala Lumpur to navigate the Malaysian legal system and work to categorize the remaining Cambodians as victims of trafficking, rather than as illegal immigrants.
“We want to get them all out together. It’s what we want but we don’t know how much we can do. It’s according to the Malaysian government, because the decision should be made by them,” she said.
Malaysia has not signed the UN Protocol to Prevent and Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. It has signed but not ratified the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.
Cambodia has signed but not ratified the agreements.
Signatories are encouraged to coordinate agencies to crack down on trafficking rings and to prevent trafficking victims from facing criminal charges.
Without a cooperative agreement, victims are more likely to get trapped in a legal system that does not understand them, Hang Vannak said.
“The victims don’t speak the Malaysian language. But generally, the evidence is the responsibility of the police and the prosecutor,” he said. “Because Malaysia has not signed the UN Protocol, we’re not sure if the prosecutor will take the time to determine what their status is.”
Salahuddin Yusof, first secretary at the Malaysian Embassy, said Malaysia is willing to work to curb illegal trafficking, but he blamed the Cambodian diplomatic community for bungling the process.
“Some of them [victims] have no legal travel documents, so we have to study first,” he said. “When we refer to the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, they are not cooperating. That is the problem.”
The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has appealed to the Malaysian government to sign a memorandum of understanding on joint efforts to repatriate trafficking victims. Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua said Tuesday that the Malaysian ambassador is considering the proposal.