KAMPALA, Uganda – Advertisements pinned on the walls of shopping malls in Uganda's capital promise young women a free ticket to a well-paying job in Malaysia as a nanny, maid or bartender.
Instead many are forced to become "sex slaves" to pay off travel fees and other costs, totaling as much as $7,000. The traffickers brainwash their victims into believing they may die if they quit, apparently by collecting samples of their hair and fingernails.
Authorities say nearly all of the prostituted girls have college degrees but have failed to find jobs in Uganda, where unemployment is high.
And Ugandan officials say it is hard to cripple a highly organized syndicate that preys on educated but vulnerable women, and then intimidates them into the kind of silence that hampers investigations.
"Some of the girls, when they reach here, we ask them to tell us what happened. And she says, 'I can't tell you; I will die.' They will never talk," said Asan Kasingye, chief of Interpol in Uganda.
A report released last week said that more than 600 Ugandan girls are currently trapped in Malaysian prostitution rings. Uganda's honorary consul in Kuala Lumpur said in the report that at least three Ugandans have been killed there in the last two years.
"I need to stop this, and it has to stop at the source," Hajah Noraihan, Uganda's top diplomat in Malaysia, said during a trip to Uganda last week. "The girls think there are green pastures (in Malaysia), but it is not a picnic."
A Malaysian Foreign Ministry official said the government is aware of the issue with Ugandan women, but declined to elaborate. Other officials familiar with the matter could not immediately be reached.
The human traffickers take advantage of relaxed immigration laws between Uganda and Malaysia, where Ugandans do not need a tourist visa, as well as poor enforcement of a law against human trafficking passed in 2009.
In October 2011, Malaysian police busted a sex slave ring and rescued 21 Ugandan women forced into prostitution. Initial investigations showed the women were promised jobs as maids in homes and hotels with a salary of $1,000 a month, but instead forced to become "sex slaves" to pay off travel fees and other costs totaling $7,000.
The U.S. Department of State said in its 2011 report that Uganda "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking." It cited Denmark, Oman, and Malaysia as destinations for Ugandan victims.
Malaysia has often been under the spotlight for human trafficking. In 2009, it was placed on the U.S. list of countries with the worst human trafficking records for a third time -- meaning it faced possible sanctions unless its record improved. In 2010, Malaysia was upgraded to a "watch list" after authorities stepped up anti-trafficking efforts.
Staggering figures and some gruesome pictures of Ugandan girls murdered in Malaysia are now forcing officials into weekly meetings in hopes of finding a quick solution.
"These are graduates we are talking about," Kasingye said. "It's not that they are taking stupid people. They are taking people who have finished university but have no jobs."
The racket has attracted the attention of parliamentarians and activists who say Uganda's government is not doing enough to protect vulnerable girls from sexual exploitation. A parliament committee will travel to Malaysia in about two weeks to find out how the Ugandans end up there.
"What exactly is the problem? It is implementation of the law, ensuring the labor agencies are being monitored," parliamentarian Monica Amoding said.