Modern-day slavery. The exploitation of our fellow human beings. It’s still happening all around us today, close by. Take some time to read this real incident dealt with by Vananh T. Nguyen.
I was on my way to dinner one Saturday evening in early July when my cellphone rang. I had just arrived in Malaysia from the United States two days earlier, having joined the Coalition to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery in Asia (CAMSA) in the fight against human trafficking. The phone call, it turned out, was from our country manager, Daniel Lo, calling to inform me that a woman named Lisa has reached out to CAMSA for rescue. The details were unclear, but it appeared to be a sex trafficking case, and that I should contact Lisa to get the full story. I took a couple seconds to breathe in the moment, realizing that I was only two days in, and I was already on the brink of a trafficking case. It felt surreal, and yet, ever so much real. I immediately secured Lisa’s number, prepared some questions, and placed a phone call.
I had thought Lisa herself was the trafficking victim, but a few minutes into the conversation, I realized her to be a third party seeking help on behalf of thevictim. The victim herself was a 27 year-old woman named Lan, who had arrived in Kuala Lumpur the day before with two friends, seeking work as waitresses. Prior to this, an acquaintance in Vietnam had recruited them and promised that they would secure a good living working as waitresses. This acquaintance then introduced them to Nhung, a Vietnamese woman living in Malaysia. Nhung not only agreed to help the three women find work once they arrived, but also purchased for them their airplane tickets. Upon their arrival in KL, Nhung and her male Chinese-Malaysian boyfriend were present at the airport to pick up the three women and transported them to their house in Cheras.
From Lisa, I learned that upon arrival the day before, Lan and her two friends discovered themselves sold for a reported $500USD each by their acquaintance inVietnam. In the same evening following their arrival, the women were taken to a bar – where they not only saw many female prostitutes walking about, but were also asked by those accompanying them to try drugs. Out of fear, Lan and her friends feigned stomachache and requested to be taken home.
Upon returning to the house, the women were left in a room with the main door to the house locked. Worried and fearful of their situation, Lan and her friends told Nhung that they would like to return to Vietnam immediately, rather than staying in Malaysia to work. However, it was not to be so easy. Nhung demanded $800USD each if the women wished to be released, claiming the amount to be for the cost of airfare and travel arrangements. Of the three women, Lan’s friend Thuwas was able to secure the money with the help of a Malaysian friend, and so was released early that Saturday evening. The remaining two women, including Lan,were kept in the house, but were allowed to use a cell phone to call for financial assistance from their families in Vietnam. However, coming from impoverished households, both still could not secure the needed funds.
Upon leaving the premises, Thu was able to record the exact address of the house. She then made contact with Lan’s family friend, Lisa, requesting help for the two remaining victims. Thanks to Thu’s information, Lisa not only provided me with an address for rescue, but also a phone number to directly reach Lan. By 9:30pm, Ifound myself on the phone with Lan, whose fearful whispers told me that she and her friend were staying in a room with another Vietnamese woman. They were uncertain as to whether the woman is a fellow victim or an accomplice placed there on watch. Lan also reported that there was someone else outside the door guarding them. As for all other occupants within the house (she estimated the number to be about 10), she said that they had gone out for work and would not come back until early the next morning.
My phone conversation with Lan was limited to only a few minutes before we switched to text messaging. She repeatedly expressed her extreme fear that those in the house would harm her life if they knew of her talking to me. With an unknown Vietnamese woman in the room, it was decided to be safer for us to use text messaging, and Lan was to immediately delete each message I sent her. Having secured enough information, I assured Lan that CAMSA would work with the police to ensure her immediate rescue. However, my assurance was met with skepticism and doubt. Lan expressed distrust in law enforcement’s involvement, fearing that the police officers and her traffickers may work together. I took time to reassure her that we would put her safety as our top priority and would seek proper rescue for her and her friend.
Meanwhile, I contacted Tenaganita’s Aegile Fernandez to evaluate the case and to request help in devising a proper course of action for rescue. Ms. Fernandez in turn made contact with Malaysian law enforcement, and a rescue team was scheduled for the following day. According to Ms. Fernandez, law enforcement would conduct surveillance at the location in the morning and perform a raid at an appropriate timing. On my end, I continued to communicate with Lan via text messaging till past midnight, as well as the following morning. Any new information I learned from Lan, including the traffickers’ request for the women’s passports, I would relay them to Ms. Fernandez and police officers.
Around noon, Ms. Fernandez contacted me with news that police had successfully conducted the rescue operation. The women were safe in police custody and would be placed under a government protection order until their repatriation. Needless to say, the reaction from all sides at this news was of collective relief. I was ever so grateful for the efficiency of Tenaganita’s assistance and for the law enforcement’s timely response. I knew too well that, for every one successful rescue, there are countless others muddled by lack of communication and plagued by unresponsive and careless actions. But here, the effective collaboration between fellow NGOs and the government allowed for this successful story to take place, and for that, I’m thankful.