HONG KONG – It was an offer he couldn’t resist: an easy job abroad, a handsome salary and even the chance to stay in a fancy hotel with his own personal trainer.
When Yang Weibin saw the advertisement for a telesales position in Cambodia, he immediately accepted. The 35-year-old Taiwanese didn’t earn much as a massage therapist and had to support his parents after his father suffered a stroke.
Weeks later, Weibin boarded a plane to Phnom Penh. When he reached the Cambodian capital, he was met by several men who drove him to a nondescript building on a deserted road — not quite the luxury hotel depicted in the recruiter’s pictures.
His passport was taken from him – to do his paperwork, he was told. He was led into a small bare room – his new home. And one more thing, the men said: you can never leave the premises.
The penny dropped. “I knew then that I had landed in the wrong place, that this was a very dangerous situation,” he told the BBC.
Weibin is among thousands of workers who have fallen victim to labor traffickers in Southeast Asia in recent months. Governments across Asia – including Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan – have sounded the alarm.
Lured by ads promising easy work and extravagant perks, many are enticed to travel to Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. Once they arrive, they are held captive and forced to work in online scam centers known as “scam factories”.
Human trafficking has long been an endemic problem in Southeast Asia. However, experts say criminal networks are now looking further afield and preying on a different kind of victim.
Their targets are usually quite young – many are teenagers. They are also better educated, computer literate and usually speak more than one regional language.
These are seen as key by human traffickers who need skilled workers to carry out criminal online activities ranging from love scams known as “pig slaughtering” and crypto fraud to money laundering and illegal gambling.
Chi Tin, from Vietnam, told the BBC he had to pose as a woman and make friends with strangers online.
“I was forced to find 15 friends every day and trick them into joining online gambling and lottery websites… out of which I had to convince 5 people to deposit money into their gaming accounts,” he said.
“The manager told me to work obediently, not try to escape or resist, otherwise I will be taken to the torture room… Many others told me that if they failed to achieve the objective, they would be starved and beaten.”
The abuse often leads to lasting trauma. Two Vietnamese victims, who declined to be named, told the BBC they were beaten, electrocuted and repeatedly sold to fraud centres.
One of them is just 15 years old. With her face disfigured by the abuse, she has dropped out of school since returning home because she is ashamed to face her friends.
The other, a 25-year-old man, shared this photo taken by one of his kidnappers, which was used to demand a ransom from his family. It shows him handcuffed to a metal bed frame with visible bruises on one knee where he was electrocuted.
Victims are told to pay off “debts” owed to the scam centers if they want to leave – essentially a hefty ransom – or risk being sold to another scam center. In Chi Tin’s case, his family managed to scrape together $2,600 (£1,600) to buy his freedom.
Those who cannot afford it have no choice but to attempt a dangerous escape.
In a high-profile case last month, more than 40 Vietnamese locked in a Cambodian casino broke out of their compound and jumped into a river to swim around the border. A 16-year-old died when he was swept away by the currents.
While Cambodia has emerged as a major hotspot for scam hubs, many have also popped up in border towns in Thailand and Myanmar. According to reports, most of them appear to be Chinese-owned or affiliated with Chinese companies.
These companies are often cover for Chinese criminal syndicates, the rescue and advocacy group Global Anti-Scam Organization (Gaso) said.
“Many are quite sophisticated with separate departments for things like IT, finance, money laundering. The larger ones can be corporate-like, with training for fraud, progress reports, quotas and sales targets,” Gaso spokesman Jan Santiago said.
They are also multinational organizations as the syndicates often work with local gangs to run their scam centers or conduct recruitment. Last month, Taiwanese authorities said more than 40 local organized crime groups were involved in human trafficking operations in Southeast Asia.
While China-powered telecom and online scams have long been a problem, Covid has changed everything, experts say.
Criminal networks have figured out how to quickly switch to online operations during the pandemic. Many of the traffickers used to target Chinese workers as well, but China’s strict travel restrictions and multiple lockdowns have cut off this important source of labor and forced traffickers to turn to other countries.
This has coincided with a surge in jobseekers in Asia as the region emerges from the pandemic with battered economies.
“Many of the victims are young, some have university degrees and have limited job opportunities. They see these online promises for decent jobs and they follow them,” said Peppi Kiviniemi-Siddiq, an Asia-Pacific migrant protection specialist at the UN’s International Organization for Migration.
As many Asian countries eased Covid travel restrictions in recent months, she added, traffickers have found it easier to lure and induce people to “operate with impunity in states with less organized crime-fighting capacity.”
Another factor is increased Chinese investment in the region, mostly through the Belt and Road Initiative, which has improved connectivity – but also the opportunity for organized crime to expand its reach, experts say.
Last month, Thai authorities arrested She Zhijiang, a Chinese businessman with investments across Southeast Asia, including a multi-billion dollar casino and tourism complex called Shwe Kokko in Myanmar.
He was wanted by Interpol, which said he was the leader of a criminal gang running illegal gambling businesses in the region. Several victims have claimed they were trafficked, imprisoned and brutalized at Mr She’s complex, nicknamed ‘KK Park’.
Law enforcement is only now beginning to catch up. Cambodian police have been working with Indonesian, Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese authorities in recent months to conduct rescue operations and raids on fraud centers, and set up a direct hotline for victims.
Cambodia’s interior minister acknowledged the problem was widespread and called it “a new crime that has emerged brutally” – while stressing that it is predominantly committed by foreigners.
But victims and NGOs say Cambodian police, judges and other officials are complicit in colluding with traffickers or accepting bribes in return for dropping charges, according to this year’s US State Department Human Trafficking Report.
She notes that despite “consistent credible allegations,” many of these officers have not been prosecuted.
Ms Kiviniemi-Siddiq said much more needs to be done to eradicate the problem completely: “Some of these governments need to update their laws on human trafficking, have the necessary support systems for individuals and more cross-border law enforcement cooperation – which is difficult to achieve is and takes time.”
Many countries have now launched public education campaigns to raise awareness of the scams.
Some have introduced screening for people leaving for destinations in Southeast Asia, for example by stationing police officers at airports to question people about their reasons for traveling. Last month, Indonesian officials grounded several private flights carrying hundreds of workers to Cambodia’s Sihanoukville.
Volunteer groups have also emerged in several countries to help victims escape and return home, such as B. Gaso. Some of these volunteers are former victims themselves – like Weibin.
After spending 58 days in captivity in Cambodia, he managed to escape one morning by crawling off the premises while the guards weren’t looking. With the help of anti-scam activists, he eventually returned home and is now back to work at his old job.
But his massage stand has a new feature: a large white sign with a handwritten account of his experience in Cambodia. He has also shared his story extensively online and in Taiwanese media.
“A lot of people really long for the good life and have unrealistic fantasies [about jobs]. Now I advise people to be more realistic,” he told the BBC.
“You can make money anywhere. You don’t have to go abroad to take such risks. There are a lot of unknowns abroad, it can damage life in ways you can’t even imagine.” – BBC