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Pressure mounts on Cambodia over human trafficking

Hong Kong citizens also feared trafficked into online scams in Southeast Asian country
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: August 19, 2022 08:09 AM GMT
Updated: August 19, 2022 08:44 AM GMT

Hong Kong has been added to a growing list of Asian countries and territories that fear their citizens have been trafficked into Cambodia, where they are held against their will and forced to work online scams for organized Chinese crime syndicates.

Travel warnings and a media campaign warning Hong Kong residents of the risks in traveling to Cambodia are also a consideration by the Chinese territory after immigration officials revealed that 17 people had been trafficked across Southeast Asia.

“It’s rare to issue travel warnings because of this sort of situation,” legislator Elizabeth Quat told Radio Television Hong Kong.

“I think the Security Bureau can consider issuing travel warnings and even if it can't, officials need to step up publicity online and in different media to advise people to stay alert,” she said.

Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan and China, as well as a long list of human rights groups have warned of major trafficking rings luring their citizens to Cambodia and Myanmar with fake promises of well-paid jobs.

The overwhelming majority have found themselves in Sihanoukville, a notoriously lawless port city on Cambodia’s south coast, where they are forced to work online scams involving gambling, cryptocurrencies and romance scams, among others, for up to 20 hours a day.

"Those who escaped or were rescued have told harrowing stories of beatings and torture"

Former Yau Tsim Mong district councilor Andy Yu said he was working with the families of two Hong Kong men who are thought to be held captive in Myanmar.

He said the pair went to the country in June and are believed to have been forced into taking part in fraudulent activities and that their captors would not allow them to leave until they swindled money from a targeted amount of people.

“A visa is required to visit Cambodia and Myanmar. Is this a trace that the police can follow?” he asked. “I believe the syndicates would have some representatives in Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong who can speak local languages in order to lure people overseas.”

Those who escaped or were rescued have told harrowing stories of beatings and torture if they failed to meet quotas and financial targets imposed by the syndicates.

In Jakarta, on Wednesday, police announced a recruitment agency was put out of business after it attempted to traffic 212 Indonesians from Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan via a chartered flight from Medan to Sihanoukville.

“We are also investigating the relationship between the company and online gambling rings in Cambodia,” North Sumatra Police spokesperson Sr Comr Hadi Wahyudi told The Jakarta Post.

“A crisis of forced labor, slavery and torture”

According to data from the Indonesian embassy in Phnom Penh, at least 417 Indonesian migrant workers have been duped into human trafficking schemes since the trend started last year.

Also on Wednesday, prosecutors in Taiwan detained two individuals suspected of attempting to lure at least seven people to Cambodia with the intention of forcing them against their will to take part in criminal activities.

Last week Taiwan said it feared up to 5,000 of its nationals were being held in fortified compounds. However, a subsequent check with 4,679 households resulted in a sharp lowering of that estimate to 373, of which 40 have returned home.

Washington has also announced a new initiative — to be overseen by the International Justice Mission (IJM) — to counter the human trade in Cambodia after the State Department dropped the country to Tier 3, the lowest rank on its trafficking index, for failing to deal with the issue.

“Our countering trafficking in persons work, in partnership with IJM, will ease the suffering of human trafficking victims and help bring perpetrators to justice,” said Benjamin Wohlauer, charge d’affaires of the US embassy in Phnom Penh.

The current of wave human trafficking can be dated back to March when a group of 35 NGOs, including IJM, told the Cambodian government to urgently address “a crisis of forced labor, slavery and torture” after warnings were issued by five Asian embassies.

The Cambodian government insists it is doing its best but says the dynamics of human trafficking have changed given the crushing economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has forced people from across the region to risk all in finding alternative, often illegal, employment.

Despite the many critics, who argue the Cambodian authorities are not doing enough, rescues and arrests have been made. Extraordinary scenes were recorded and reported overnight amid a police raid on a casino near the Vietnamese border.

More than 60 foreign workers fled the scene with what they could carry, broke through a fence surrounding the Golden Phoenix Entertainment Complex in Koh Thom, and then swam across the Bassac River into Vietnam.

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Dear reader,
Trafficking is one of the largest criminal industries in the world, only outdone by drugs and arms trafficking, and is the fastest-growing crime today.
Victims come from every continent and are trafficked within and to every continent. Asia is notorious as a hotbed of trafficking.
In this series, UCA News introduces our readers to this problem, its victims, and the efforts of those who shine the light of the Gospel on what the Vatican calls “these varied and brutal denials of human dignity.”
Help us with your donations to bring such stories of faith that make a difference in the Church and society.
A small contribution of US$5 will support us continue our mission…
William J. Grimm
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