Asia shares
world-wide shame

Genesis of a latter-day Asian slavery market
How human trafficking moved from Cambodia to Myanmar to Pakistan
Chinese police check Chinese suspects accused of running a telecoms scam to extort money from victims in their home country before boarding a plane at Phnom Penh international airport in Cambodia, in this October 2017 file photo.

Chinese police check Chinese suspects accused of running a telecoms scam to extort money from victims in their home country before boarding a plane at Phnom Penh international airport in Cambodia, in this October 2017 file photo. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 22, 2024 03:33 AM GMT
Updated: May 22, 2024 05:37 AM GMT

Frustrations are running deep among international law enforcement agencies and regional governments over their limited abilities to cope with human trafficking and organized crime rings that have revolutionized an industry that turns ordinary citizens into slaves.

Interpol says human trafficking and scam compounds in Southeast Asia are worth more than US$3 trillion in illicit revenue a year since emerging from Cambodia’s south coast during the Covid-19 pandemic, where Chinese syndicates honed their criminal enterprises with impunity.

Cambodia has insisted the scourge has been exaggerated by journalists, despite the rescue and repatriation of thousands of people from across Asia who were duped into accepting false job offers and then forced into “pig butchering” out of hidden compounds in secret locations.

Romance scams, cryptos, real estate, online gambling, and extortion are just some of the tools of a dark trade developed alongside legitimate Chinese investors who turned Sihanoukville into a casino mecca known as the “Las Vegas of the East” by the mid-2010s.

Those who fail to meet quotas are beaten, tortured and held for ransom or traded among the criminal networks. Those who give in and perform are rewarded with cash payouts and promises they can go home and have sex.

“Many women have been trafficked and traded,” said a European rescue specialist, who declined to be named. “If they refuse to scam, they are offered as prizes and passed around. Some even work as models in love scams, performing online for a targeted victim.”

Rumors of Chinese and Southeast Asians being trafficked first surfaced in late 2020 when some 400,000 legitimate Chinese workers fled Cambodia as the pandemic took hold.


This photo taken on Sept. 26, 2022 shows a motorist passing a building previously shut down by the police in Sihanoukville in Preah Sihanouk province. (Photo: AFP)

Thousands more, who were associated with illegal gambling, remained, predominantly in Sihanoukville, where more than a thousand buildings, including dozens of casinos, were left empty and at least 500 half-built skyscrapers were abandoned.

That’s when human trafficking was kicked from traditional perceptions — of men being press-ganged onto fishing boats or young village girls sold into brothels — into the billion-dollar orbit of cyber-crimes. Diplomatic sources say this industry makes about $20 billion annually in Cambodia.

Neighboring governments were soon flooded with pleas for help from stricken families whose loved ones had answered advertisements for high-paid jobs only to find themselves trapped in and around Sihanoukville.

By late 2021, the embassies of Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, and China had all taken what was then a highly unusual step: They issued warnings about “the situation” and told Cambodia to act, but those reports remained off the radar in Cambodia’s well-oiled state-run press.

By March the following year, a group of 35 NGOs told the Cambodian government to urgently address “a crisis of forced labor, slavery and torture” as reports detailing kidnapping and extortion rackets began hitting the international headlines.

“The continued existence of these operations is a tragedy, and we are horrified that Cambodia is being used as a base for such inhumanity. All relevant actors must immediately guarantee that no one is subject to slavery or torture within Cambodia,” they said in a joint communique.

Even an annual report by Cambodia’s National Committee for Counter Trafficking reported caseloads in 2021 had more than doubled to 359 over the previous year, when numbers were expected to fall given travel and security restrictions imposed because of Covid.

It also found that surrogate mothers, babies, organ transplants, laborers, and sex workers were among those trafficked and that Cambodia had emerged as a trafficking destination as opposed to its history as a transit point.


In this photo taken on September 27, 2022, in Phnom Penh, a victim of a Chinese scamming gang shows a scar on his leg after he was tortured. (Photo: AFP)

At two press conferences, well covered by the international media in Kuala Lumpur, heartbroken parents cried and pleaded for the release of their children, some as young as 17, who also spoke to reporters from mobile phones they had been handed to scam people with.

“We work more than 15 hours a day. They give us instructions to scam people worldwide,” one victim said. “If we do not perform, they hit us. More than 30 of us have been mistreated because we underperformed.”

The evidence was mounting and pointing to senior leaders, real estate tycoons and corrupt businessmen with ties to organized crime, and Chinese nationals with Cambodian passports, as the culprits. Wan Kuok-koi popularly known as Broken Tooth, former leader of the Macau branch of the 14K triad, was among them.

That should have been enough to prompt Cambodian authorities into action, but they again claimed these stories were exaggerated. One official described such cases as “immigration misconduct,” and another even implied that they, too, were victims.

“Criminals are choosing human trafficking as a career,” then interior minister Sar Kheng said, adding: “They won’t let it go. They are taking advantage of us when we are facing a crisis.”

Pig butchering — where the victim is gradually lured or forced into handing over more money — continued, angering the Chinese government amid perceptions that Beijing was, at best, incapable of controlling its criminal element abroad or, even worse, supporting those networks.

Authorities in Phnom Penh declined the Chinese government's request for special powers to arrest its own nationals involved in criminal activity but swore they would end the scourge before local elections were to be held in mid-2022. That didn’t happen.

But China withheld Cambodia’s much needed investment dollars and in making its displeasure known, Beijing censors approved the release of “No More Bets” — a movie that told the story of a Chinese pair trapped and trafficked into compounds in Southeast Asia.


A theatrical poster of the Chinese movie 'No More Bets' was released in 2023. The film tells the story of a Chinese programmer and a model who find themselves trapped in a foreign country as prisoners of a ruthless gang and are forced into online gambling fraud. (Photo: Asia Gaming Brief)

It was a smash hit in the People’s Republic, where authorities refused a Cambodian request to have the film banned. The United States then dropped Cambodia to its lowest tier on the annual human trafficking list and later imposed sanctions backed by Canada and the United Kingdom.

Rescue operations did, however, emerge with the help of independent NGOs, foreign embassies, and Interpol operating with local police and gathered pace as fears this country’s tourism industry — still reeling from the pandemic — would not recover amid all the negative headlines.

A crackdown did follow, and criminal networks scattered, initially to the Vietnamese and Thai borders and further afield into Laos and Myanmar, where criminal syndicates have taken advantage of the civil war and can operate with impunity from places like Shwe Kokko, where some 10,000 victims are housed in one compound.

Tourism has still not recovered in Cambodia, but the crackdown has escalated in conjunction with Chinese law enforcement. Two operations in March netted 700 Chinese nationals, all are suspected cyber criminals and to be deported for running scam and human trafficking operations.

However, the scourge is far from eliminated, and recruiters in Cambodia have shifted targets. No longer favoring Chinese and Southeast Asians, human traffickers are now focused on Central Asia, luring in nationals from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

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