Cambodia has long had a problem with its own citizens being trafficked to neighboring countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, where they work in slavery-like conditions. But rooting out foreign-run trafficking rings within its borders is a new phenomenon, and Phnom Penh’s ability to disrupt criminal networks could have far-reaching implications for its regional standing, experts told Reuters. VOA Khmer.
Jason Tower, Burma country director for the American Institute for Peace, said Chinese criminal networks have extended their footprint into relatively lawless pockets of Southeast Asia in recent years, including Cambodia.
A crackdown on online gambling in China pushed many players out of China and into relatively unregulated areas of Southeast Asia, he said, then COVID-19 suddenly came to a halt. the flow of labor, tourists, and gamers from China, forcing out what were effectively organized criminal networks. look for other sources of income.
In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government announced its own ban on online gambling operations in 2019, forcing some Chinese investors in the sector to come up with alternative business plans.
Chinese embassies across the region began reporting an increase in kidnappings of Chinese nationals early in the pandemic, Tower said, soon followed by reports of trafficking, abuse and enslavement of victims from countries in the region. .
“As the pandemic progressed, more and more evidence emerged that this was truly a regional crisis,” Tower said, “that it was largely about the…labour transnational criminal groups that traffic people across borders, detaining them in these areas in slave-like working conditions and forcing them to either commit scams or pay large sums of money to secure their freedom. “
Chou Bun Eng, a senior Interior Ministry official who heads Cambodia’s National Anti-Trafficking Committee, told VOA Khmer on Friday that Cambodian authorities have arrested more than 60 foreign suspects linked to a human trafficking ring. people in the country. She pointed out that not all arrests involved human trafficking; some were related to labor contract disputes. She did not specify the nationalities of the suspects, saying some had been deported and others were being held for prosecution.
A day earlier, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said foreigners had deceptively used Cambodians to commit cybercrimes. “Cambodia is a victim, since 99.9% of the brains are not Cambodian,” he said.
VOA contacted the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh via email for comment on the traffic scams, but did not receive a response.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Dato’ Sri Saifuddin Abdullah said in a meeting with Prak Sokhonn, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, on Friday that many Malaysians come to Cambodia to do business and work successfully. Only a small number of Malaysians fall victim to job scams.
Complaints for months
After months of growing reports of workers from across Asia being trafficked to Chinese cybercrime networks operating in Cambodia, the country’s interior minister on Aug. 22 announced a more aggressive response. Sar Kheng said officials were deployed across the country to check hotels, casinos and other establishments for potential trafficking victims and some suspected traffickers had already been arrested.
Sar Kheng made the remarks shortly after Taipei complained in Phnom Penh that more than 300 Taiwanese citizens were being held captive in Cambodia after being lured into supposedly high-paying tech jobs, only to end up in data centers. calls seeking to defraud Chinese targets.
Other foreign governments had raised concerns in Phnom Penh about their citizens being trapped in Cambodia-based Chinese scams.
Indonesia has requested a meeting – on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in early August – on the trafficking of its citizens to Cambodia. It announced on August 23 that it had repatriated 241 Indonesians trafficked by online scammers and prevented another 214 potential victims from traveling to Cambodia.
Since early August, the Philippines has been urging Cambodian authorities to rescue four nationals detained at a casino resort in Koh Kong province. More than 40 Vietnamese nationals escaped from a casino in Kandal province and swam across the Binh Di River to Vietnam on August 18. Hong Kong officials said 10 of its citizens were trafficked, according to the South China Morning Post.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Chum Sounry said that in the past six months the ministry had received requests for intervention in forced labor cases from at least nine embassies, including Bangladesh. , India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand. .
The interior minister said in a statement on August 26 that Cambodian authorities had rescued about 900 foreign citizens from trafficking rings this year.
Scams and hits
News outlets including Nikkei Asia and Al Jazeera have detailed horrific abuses by Chinese kidnappers in Cambodia, ranging from brutal beatings to terrorizing victims with tasers and electric batons and sexual assaults against female victims. of trafficking. Victims are often held in heavily guarded compounds with barbed wire or bars to prevent people from entering or leaving.
Many trafficked people are fairly well educated, as the scams they are coerced into committing usually require good language skills – often Chinese – and they must be literate to follow the scripts used to trick unexpected victims. Many are recruited through advertisements for “tech jobs” promising a placement either in Southeast Asia or elsewhere.
Scams include: “pig butchering”, in which a brand is wooed into a romantic relationship to share their bank details; seeking investors for fraudulent schemes; selling bogus sex club memberships; and posing as government officials demanding unpaid fees or fines.
While it’s unclear to what extent Sar Kheng’s actions will disrupt illegal operations, it’s at least a sign that Cambodia is responding to growing concern from its neighbors, Tower said.
“It seems that as a result of a bit of international pressure, you’re now starting to see the Cambodian authorities come out of this at least saying, ‘Yeah, look, we’re doing some things. We are taking steps to fix this,'” he said.
Cambodia has already faced the global fallout from its failure to deal with new trends in human trafficking.
Cambodia was downgraded to Tier 3 in the US State Department’s latest Trafficking in Persons Report, meaning the government is failing to meet minimum standards in its efforts to combat human trafficking and “does not made no significant effort to do so”.
“Authorities have failed to investigate or hold criminally responsible those responsible for the vast majority of credible reports of complicity, particularly with unscrupulous business owners who subjugated thousands of men, women and children across the country to human trafficking in entertainment establishments, brick kilns and online scam operations,” the report said.
The consequences for Cambodia if it fails to bring the trafficking networks under control could be severe, said Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Licadho, a local human rights group.
“If Cambodia has no commitment and a great will [to crack down on scammers]it will affect Cambodia’s image, investments, tourism due to safety and security,” he told VOA Khmer.
“Expert Clever Criminals”
Vitit Muntarbhorn, the new UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, spoke in an interview with VOA Khmer in Phnom Penh on August 26 about the worrying trend of cyber scams and human trafficking. humans on his first visit to the role of the country.
He also encouraged cooperation with victims’ countries of origin and better training of Cambodian officials to identify victims and gather information on scam networks.
“We need something more specialized and with some ability and ingenuity,” said Vitit Muntarbhorn.
Pech Pisey, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said the ruling party could also pay a high price at home if trafficking rings continue unhindered.
“People don’t want to see Cambodia used by international criminals to carry out vicious criminal activities, including human trafficking,” he said.
“It’s linked as a system, so it needs a systematic solution,” Pech Pisey said. “International criminals like that are very expert and very smart.”
Tower of the US Institute of Peace said failing to confront traffickers now could allow the practice to grow – in Cambodia and across the region. Governments could start warning their citizens against travel or resettlement to high-risk countries for trafficking, given the high political and security costs of having their citizens trapped or enslaved abroad , did he declare.
“Because at the end of the day everyone has a stake in being able to protect their nationals,” Tower said, “and that’s a pretty big loss of face for any country that sort of sees a significant number of its nationals victims of trafficking or subjected to this type of circumstance on foreign soil.”