By Beh Lih Yi
JAKARTA, June 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Malaysian authorities have rescued 29 Filipino women who had been trafficked into the country to work, and arrested their agents, Filipino officials said on Wednesday, in the country's latest move to tackle the crime.
Malaysia has an estimated 2 million illegal migrant labourers, some of whom work in conditions of forced labour in sectors ranging from electronics to palm oil to domestic service, according to the U.S. State Department.
The Philippine embassy in Kuala Lumpur said it had contacted Malaysian police after it received tip-offs about some trafficked Filipino women, prompting a rescue operation.
Malaysian police raided two bars in the coastal town of Bintulu in the eastern state of Sarawak on June 9 where they found the women, according to an embassy statement.
It said traffickers brought the women to Sarawak as tourists and promised them jobs by converting their tourist visas into employment visas in exchange for money.
"Under Malaysian immigration law, social visit passes (tourist visas) cannot be converted to work visas," the embassy said, urging Filipinos to be vigilant.
The 29 women will be transferred to a women's shelter while an investigation is underway.
Three individuals who allegedly acted as agents for the women, were arrested during the raid, the embassy statement said.
It was not clear whether the trio have been charged in any court. The embassy could not be reached for immediate comment.
The embassy urged Filipinos not to deal with unlicensed individuals or placement agencies as they could end up being victims of trafficking.
Last month, 15 officials were fired after Malaysia discovered an immigration racket involving the sabotage of its security system at the country's main airport, heightening fears about human trafficking.
Malaysia last year was upgraded by the U.S. State Department in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report to the Tier 2 Watch List from Tier 3, the lowest ranking for countries with the worst trafficking records.
The upgrade followed international scrutiny and outcry over Malaysian efforts to combat human trafficking after the discovery earlier in the year of scores of graves in people-smuggling camps near its northern border with Thailand.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Alex Whiting; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)