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From online scams to human trafficking

September 12, 2022
topics: Human Trafficking
by: Sasha Kong
located in: China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia
tags: Cambodia, China, COVID-19, human trafficking, modern slavery, Road and Belt Initiative, Taiwan

Job scam victims from the Greater China region have been flown to syndicates in Cambodia before being forced to cheat others back home out of their money. With the government paying close attention to combating COVID-19, human traffickers have become bolder.

Huang, a Chinese national who chose to conceal her last name, fell in love with a man she met online and did not suspect a thing when he encouraged her to invest USD $150,000 into a project. By the time she realised it was all a scam, it was too late. 

But her story doesn't end here.

Following the incident, Huang decided to join an international anti-scam organisation to help other victims in similar 'romance' scams. The organisation, called Global Anti-Scam Organisation, has saved over 80 victims from these rings so far.

Along with other volunteers in the group, Huang discovered that many of these online scammers are victims of a large-scale human trafficking ring located in Cambodia and Myanmar. 

Local media in the Greater China region has recently exposed a series of job scams that culminated in human trafficking. Typical victims either read or hear about a job ad that promises return flight tickets and an attractive salary for a job in Cambodia, Myanmar or Thailand. Once they fly there, "company staffers" confiscate their travel documents and drive them to a compound, in which they are forced to work as online scammers. Some were reportedly beaten up or tortured when they refused. 

In Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia, missing people cases linked to these human trafficking rings have made headlines. The Taiwanese police confirmed that there are over 300 such cases so far, while Hong Kong police arrested five local residents for fraud conspiracy related to these rings. In late August, 14 out of 36 known cases have been confirmed to return to safety. 

"It’s very difficult to rescue these people, unless they are tortured or raped," Huang told FairPlanet. "One way to save them is to pay [human traffickers] money, but we don’t want to encourage corruption, so decided to attract media attention."

Alleged police corruption

Certain victims who reportedly obtained sim cards were able to call the police for help and returned to their home countries. But not everyone has been as lucky. Many said that some Cambodian police officers have colluded with members of the human trafficking rings - either telling about the reporting to the members, who are likely to punish the victims for calling the police, or selling them to human trafficking rings in other locations. 

Such allegations have been circulating for months, as victims from different parts of the world are detained in Cambodia. Washington blacklisted the country earlier this year in its trafficking report, citing corruption and insufficient efforts to rein in traffickers. 

While Cambodia denied such allegations, Huang and various scam victims confirmed them. A Chinese volunteer trying to rescue detained workers from these compounds was arrested and sentenced to two years in jail in Cambodia after a worker he helped save told the media that the syndicate repeatedly harvested his blood - which sparked a sensation.

Cambodian officials maintained the tale was fabricated and arrested the worker, the volunteer and others involved.  

According to Radio Free Asia, human trafficking cases in Cambodia nearly doubled in 2021 - a trend that began in 2020 due to the pandemic.

In recent years, the country has become a backyard for Chinese fugitives wanted for illegal online gambling and human trafficking crimes, as the appeal of land and tax exemption for Chinese investors in Cambodia rose under the Belt and Road initiative.

Since Beijing clamped down on online gambling, human traffickers have reportedly been running cybercrime operations at casinos. 

Pandemic-induced new targets

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the human trafficking victims used to be residents from mainland China. But Beijing’s strict lockdown measures have made cross-border crime more difficult control, said Huang. 

"We started our rescue operations for Malaysians there, and then they switched their targets to people in Taiwan and Hong Kong," she added. 

Local media reported that a hotel owned by Chinese nationals in Cambodia volunteered to offer a safe space to rescued victims, with security guards outside preventing human traffickers from abducting them.

Mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers, Taiwanese and local Cambodian Chinese have reportedly worked together to help pull out victims from these rings.

"There’s nothing much we can do to clamp down on the trafficking rings," Huang said, "since the country is very corrupt. What we can do is to raise awareness and stop people from falling into their traps."

The rings’ most recent scams target performance groups. 

"They pretend to be organisations that invite these groups to fly to other countries for a show," she added. "Their scams change a lot."

Experts say that the governments of victims’ home countries should exempt those perpetrating forced cybercrimes from legal liability, as many are wary of reporting their cases to the police out of fear of prosecution. 

They say that Hong Kong, for instance, should pass a human trafficking law that protects victims, as the fraud charge – which punishes the convicted with up to 14 years behind bars – typically pressed against suspects does not reveal the true scope of the crime and thus fails to deliver justice. 

Image by Oscar Keys

Article written by:
Person-Dummy_lightbox
Sasha Kong
Author
China Hong Kong Taiwan Cambodia Myanmar Thailand Malaysia
Since Beijing clamped down on online gambling, human traffickers have reportedly been running cybercrime operations at casinos.
© Bloomberg
Typical victims either read or hear about a job ad that promises return flight tickets and an attractive salary for a job in Cambodia, Myanmar or Thailand.
© Madaree Tohlala
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