Human rights workers say they have not been able to see any of the 14 girls seized Thursday by police from an NGO that works with victims of sexual trafficking.
“The most important thing right now is to get a lawyer for these young women,” said Naly Pilorge, deputy director of the human rights group Licadho.
The girls—all ethnic Vietnamese under the age of 16—had been staying at the NGO Afesip since being rescued from Svay Pak brothels last month, and were believed to all be trafficking victims.
But police arrested them Thursday evening, citing immigration law violations, and the girls have been sent to Prey Sar’s CCII, Pilorge said.
A prison official confirmed Friday the girls remain in jail, saying he had orders from the court to keep them detained “because they have no visas and passports.”
The arrests have caused an uproar among rights workers and highlight the arbitrary nature of Cambodia’s court officials, who acknowledged that the girls are trafficking victims, but issued an arrest warrant because they entered Cambodia illegally.
Government officials say the girls will likely be deported.
The arrests follow a recent directive to clear Phnom Penh of foreigners living here illegally. Pierre Legros, an adviser to Afesip, sees political ambitions behind the move on the NGO.
“Justice is still connected to political issues. There is an election next year and the CPP wants to show they are active in immigration problems,” Legros said.
Legros said that while he agrees that immigration laws are necessary, they need to be carried out fairly.
“The poor, young Vietnamese girl with 18 brothers and sisters she…is an easy target,” he said.
Cambodia’s booming sex trade has made it a favored destination for human traffickers operating out of the country’s brothels or using Cambodia as a gateway to other countries.
“I want to push the government to keep going with this—arrest every girl and trafficker in Svay Pak, I want Svay Pak closed down in a week,” he said.