There has been a development in the region that is gaining media attention and causing concern for anti-trafficking professionals. In the past couple of years, there has been a rise in trafficking, whereby people are lured by job offers they find on social media for positions in call centers or similar ventures, but then find themselves trafficked to Cambodia, subjected to beatings, torture, enslavement, and sometimes are even killed. They are forced to work incredibly long hours for crime syndicates, and they are forced to perpetuate scams on unsuspecting victims by involving them in illegal online gambling or fraudulent investment schemes.
This development has caused a great deal of unease for anti-trafficking professionals–it’s difficult to find words for how different this is from what we normally encounter. But it stands apart for its scale, for how freely the criminals running these trafficking operations can operate with no fear of reprisal, and for how brutal their tactics are. It also differs in that the people trafficked aren’t necessarily the ones we’d normally consider most vulnerable. Many of the people being trafficked are college-educated and lower-middle class. Their only vulnerability might be that they recently lost a job due to COVID and happened to come across an enticing ad on Facebook at a moment when they’re searching for any available opportunity.
Here’s How Trafficking to Cambodia is Happening
In Cambodia, there are special economic zones, originally created in 2005, that have different legal structures in order to promote investment, especially foreign investment. Casinos and gambling have been allowed here–an outlier for most of Asia, where gambling is often illegal or very restricted. There was some pressure to shut these down even before the pandemic started, but the pandemic definitely accelerated the shift to illegal online gambling. Since then, thousands of people all over Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, China, Indonesia, etc.) have been trafficked following ads for jobs as call center officers, casino workers, or office clerks, offering significant pay and benefits and were then forced to scam other victims out of their money.
One way this works is a process called “pig butchering” where they develop a relationship with victims and entice them to part with their money in cyber scams involving cryptocurrencies, stocks, or other assets.
As quoted in an article on Sixth Tone:
To avoid the watchful eyes of the Chinese authorities, the scammers communicated with their workers through the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Ming, a 15-year-old girl who was trafficked along with [14-year-old] Yun, tells Sixth Tone that their captors would intimidate them by sending bloody videos into the Telegram work groups that supposedly showed the consequences of insubordination. “It was scary,” Ming says.
Scamming strangers made Yun nervous. He didn’t quite understand what he was doing and wasn’t a willing participant, but he was also afraid to protest for fear of getting punished. At just 14, the boy was the youngest among the employees, but he was beaten twice for failing to bait anyone. At night, inside the shared dorm room he had been assigned, he cried while hiding under his covers. “If I was seen by those people, I would definitely be suspected (of wanting to escape),” Yun tells Sixth Tone.
There’s an informative Al Jazeera video if you want to learn more. Warning: Some of the visual images can be quite graphic.
It’s Incredibly Difficult to Get Help
The criminals running these operations have amassed so much power that, by and large, they operate with effective impunity. People who come forward with claims of being trafficked are frequently accused of fabricating their stories. Some embassies, such as Thai and Malaysian embassies have successfully been able to extract certain individuals when they have enough information to act, but their power also remains limited or requires a lot of coordination with other governmental authorities and civil society organizations.
Hopefully, as more attention is drawn to the problem, it will create pressure for local government intervention. Social media companies such as Facebook could also do more to track down these fraudulent job offers and remove them from their sites, similarly to how they’ve clamped down on abusive imagery.
In the meantime, NGOs working in the field are trying to raise awareness about these fraudulent job offers so fewer people will be lured into these traps. Hopefully, as more victims come forward or are rescued, we can also learn more about who is targeted in these online scams, so we can also raise awareness globally among potential scam victims on how to recognize “pig butchering” and other tactics the scammers use to trick them out of their money.
These developments are particularly striking in how limited the options are to help trafficking victims. In these cases especially, prevention seems the most promising way out.