ByButh Reaksmey Kongkea and Brooke Lewis
Aven, now 24 years old, says she agreed to fake a marriage to a Taiwanese broker and move abroad some five years ago because she thought it would enable her to earn enough money to support her family in Kandal province.
Speaking upon her return to Phnom Penh yesterday, however, Aven – who requested her real name to be concealed and is identified here only by her Taiwanese moniker – said the broker confiscated her passport and sold her into slavery almost immediately after their arrival in Taiwan in late 2005.
“A week after I arrived in Taiwan, I was sold to work with a … vegetable company there,” she said.
“I was forced to work whole days without rest or pay. I didn’t receive enough money as I was promised.”
Instead, Aven said, she had only been paid enough to cover the cost of meals.
After working for a year as a vegetable seller, Aven was then sold to a plastic manufacturing company, where she worked for a further three years for almost nothing, she said. Aven described her renumeration at that job as being “like an allowance” that was dolled out at the discretion of her employers.
Aven said that though she had quickly realised she was being exploited, she had no hope of escaping and returning to Cambodia.
“I wanted to come back but my passport was taken away,” she said. “I cried every day.”
In early 2009, Aven was picked up by Taiwanese immigration police and contacted her mother, who reached out to the NGO Coordination of Action Research on AIDS and Mobility, CARAM Cambodia’s executive director Ya Navuth said yesterday.
He said CARAM Cambodia organised for Aven to be relocated to the organisation’s shelter in Taiwan, where she stayed until returning to Phnom Penh yesterday.
Speaking to reporters upon her return, Aven’s voice broke as she described how she had naively agreed to the fake marriage plan, a decision that she attributed to her own lack of education and opportunities.
“I would like to appeal to Cambodian girls to go to school and study higher education so that they will have higher knowledge and education and they can find good work and not be cheated or trafficked by the brokers,” she said.
“I would like to appeal to Prime Minister Hun Sen to generate more work for Cambodian people so that they will not leave their families and country for work abroad, otherwise they will be cheated and trafficked for labour like I was.”
Ya Navuth said CARAM was currently “collaborating with police” to find out the identity of the broker involved in Aven’s case, but noted that it was unlikely the investigation would lead to a prosecution.
He said CARAM had been involved in repatriating more than 20 women trafficked to Taiwan since the beginning of 2009, but that it had proved “hard to find” the brokers involved.
“For the cases in Taiwan, we’ve never seen any brokers prosecuted by the courts,” he said. “Never.”
He said the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Centre, a local NGO, has estimated that more than 5,000 Cambodian women have been trafficked to Taiwan through fake marriages “over the past few years”.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said yesterday that the government had in recent years tightened regulations for marriages between Cambodian nationals and foreigners.
“The government of Cambodia has taken strict actions and measures to prevent the people, especially women, from human trafficking via ... fake weddings,” he said.
The government last year introduced new screening mechanisms requiring that foreigners looking to marry Cambodians appear in person to submit applications to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Interior Ministry and the offices of local authorities.
Ya Navuth said yesterday that such measures could help limit human trafficking, but would not eliminate it.
“It can help, but not 100 percent,” he said, noting that rising unemployment levels could also exacerbate the problem.
“I think that if the government can create more job opportunities for people in Cambodia, less people will be looking for solutions abroad,” he said.
Aven, who was met in Phnom Penh by her parents yesterday, said she was relieved to be home.
“I am now very happy that I survived and was able to return to meet my family and country,” she said.
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to return.”