Cambodia has long had a problem with its own citizens being trafficked into nearby countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, where they work in slave-like conditions. But stamping out foreign-run trafficking rings within its borders is a new phenomenon, and Phnom Penh's ability to disrupt the criminal networks could have wide-reaching consequences for its regional standing, experts told VOA Khmer.
Jason Tower, the Burma country director for the United States Institute of Peace, said Chinese criminal networks have expanded their footprints in relatively lawless pockets of Southeast Asia in recent years, including in Cambodia.
A crackdown on online gambling in China pushed many actors out of China and into relatively unregulated areas of Southeast Asia, he said, and then COVID-19 suddenly halted the flow of labor, tourists and gamblers from China, forcing what were effectively organized crime rings to seek 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 alternate business plans.
Chinese embassies across the region began reporting an uptick in kidnappings of Chinese nationals early in the pandemic, Tower said, soon followed by reports of trafficking, abuse and enslavement of victims from countries across the region.
"As the pandemic went along, more and more evidence that this is really a regional crisis came to light," Tower said, "that this was very much the … work of transnational criminal groups who are trafficking people across borders, holding them in these zones in slave-like labor conditions and forcing them either to perpetrate scams or to pay up in large amounts of money to secure their freedom."
Chou Bun Eng, a senior Interior Ministry official who heads Cambodia's National Committee for Counter-Trafficking, told VOA Khmer on Friday that Cambodian authorities have arrested more than 60 foreign suspects related to a human trafficking network in the country. She pointed out that not all the arrests involved human trafficking; some were linked to labor contract disputes. She didn't specify the suspects' nationalities, saying some had been deported and others were being held for prosecution.
A day earlier, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said foreigners have deceptively used Cambodians to commit cybercrimes. "Cambodia is a victim, since 99.9% of the masterminds are not Cambodians," he said.
VOA contacted the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh via email for comments on the trafficking scams but did not receive a response.
Malaysia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Dato' Sri Saifuddin Abdullah said on Friday while meeting with Prak Sokhonn, Cambodia's deputy prime minister, minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, that there are many Malaysians who come to Cambodia to do business and work successfully. Only a small number of Malaysians are victims of the job scams.
Complaints for months
After months of mounting reports of workers from across Asia being trafficked into Chinese cybercrime rings operating in Cambodia, the country's interior minister on August 22 announced a more aggressive response. Sar Kheng said that officials were being deployed nationwide to check hotels, casinos and other establishments for potential trafficking victims and that some suspected traffickers had already been arrested.
Sar Kheng made his remarks shortly after Taipei complained to 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 at call centers seeking to defraud Chinese targets.
Other foreign governments had raised concerns with Phnom Penh about their citizens being trapped in Chinese-run scams based in Cambodia.
Indonesia requested a meeting – on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in early August – over its citizens being trafficked into Cambodia. It announced on Aug. 23 that it had repatriated 241 Indonesians trafficked by online scammers and prevented another 214 potential victims from traveling to Cambodia.
Since the start of August, the Philippines has urged Cambodian authorities to rescue four nationals being held in a casino complex in Koh Kong province. More than 40 Vietnamese nationals escaped from a casino in Kandal province and swam across the Binh Di River into Vietnam on Aug. 18. Hong Kong officials said 10 of its citizens are trafficking victims, according to the South China Morning Post.
Cambodia's Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Chum Sounry said in the past six months, the ministry has 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 Aug. 26 that Cambodian authorities have rescued about 900 foreign citizens from trafficking rings this year.
Scams and beatings
News outlets including Nikkei Asia and Al Jazeera have detailed horrific abuse being perpetrated by Chinese captors in Cambodia, from brutal beatings to terrorizing victims with tasers and electric batons and sexually assaulting trafficked women. Victims are often held in heavily guarded compounds with razor wire or bars to keep people from coming or going.
Many of those being trafficked are fairly well-educated, as the scams they are being forced to carry out generally require good language skills — often Chinese — and they need to be literate to follow scripts used to dupe unexpecting victims. Many are being recruited through ads for "tech jobs" promising placement either in Southeast Asia or elsewhere.
The scams include: "pig butchering," in which a mark is wooed into a romantic relationship to share bank details; seeking investors for fraudulent schemes; selling membership to fake sex clubs; and posing as government officials demanding unpaid fees or fines.
While it's unclear how much Sar Kheng's moves will disrupt the illegal operations, it's at least a sign that Cambodia is responding to the mounting concern from its neighbors, said Tower.
"It does seem that following a bit of international pressure, that you're starting now to see Cambodian authorities come out of it at least saying, 'Yeah, look, we're doing some things. We're taking some steps to address this,'" he said.
Cambodia has already faced global fallout from its failure to confront new trends in human trafficking.
Cambodia was downgraded to Tier 3 in the U.S. State Department's latest Trafficking in Persons report, meaning the government does not meet minimum standards in its efforts to combat human trafficking and "are not making significant efforts to do so."
"Authorities did not investigate or hold criminally accountable any officials involved in the large majority of credible reports of complicity, in particular with unscrupulous business owners who subjected thousands of men, women and children throughout 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 rein in the trafficking networks could be severe, said Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Licadho, a local human rights group.
"If Cambodia doesn't have commitment and high willingness [to crack down on scammers], it will affect the image of Cambodia, investment, tourism due to security and safety," he told VOA Khmer.
'Expert clever criminals'
Vitit Muntarbhorn, the new United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, spoke in an interview with VOA Khmer in Phnom Penh on Aug. 26 about the worrying trend of cyber scams and human trafficking during his first visit in the role to the country.
He also encouraged cooperating with victims' home countries and better training Cambodian officials to identify victims and gather information on the scamming rings.
"We need something more specialized and with a certain capacity and resourcefulness," Vitit Muntarbhorn said.
Pech Pisey, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said the ruling party could also pay a high price at home if the trafficking rings continue unimpeded.
"People don't want to see Cambodia used by international criminals to operate any fierce criminal activities, including human trafficking," he said.
"It is linked as a system, so it needs a systematic solution," Pech Pisey said. "The international criminals like that are very expert and very clever."
Tower of the U.S. Institute of Peace said a failure to confront the traffickers now could allow the practice to expand — in Cambodia and across the region. Governments could start warning their citizens against travel or relocation to countries with a high trafficking risk, given the steep political and security costs of having their citizens end up trapped or enslaved abroad, he said.
"Because ultimately everyone has an interest in being able to protect their nationals," Tower said, "and it's a pretty big loss of face for any country who sort of sees a significant number of their nationals trafficked or subjected to these sorts of circumstances on foreign soil."