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The recent returns of Thai, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Malaysian nationals tricked into becoming job scam victims in Cambodia highlights the persistence of human trafficking and forced labour rings preying upon unwitting workers across Southeast Asia.

Casino in Kandal Province, Cambodia, one of several job scam sites targeting Thai and Vietnamese nationals (Source: Royal Thai Police via VOD English)

First posted on 18 August by VnExpress, the dramatic escape, which turned into a viral video of more than 40 Vietnamese workers fleeing the Chinese-operated Rich World casino in Kandal Province, Cambodia, has given way to a resurgence of reports of job scams in the country. Scenes from the clip depict the runaways diving into the nearby river marking the Cambodia-Vietnam border while chased by guards armed with metal rods.

Over a thousand rescued

Vietnamese citizens return through Tinh Bien Border Crossing (Source: Radio Free Asia)

On 29 August, 63 Vietnamese citizens were repatriated to their homeland from Cambodia. An additional 26 Vietnamese, including 11 who escaped from the Rich World complex, were repatriated two days later. According to Radio Free Asia, the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh said that more than 600 Vietnamese have been tricked into going to Cambodia on empty promises of “light work and high salaries”. The opposite occurred as they became trapped in a world of exploitation, threats, and debt.

The Consular Department of Vietnam’s Foreign Affairs Ministry has since advised people to be more cautious and remain vigilant for fraud and scams. Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities have since cooperated to save another 250 victims of human trafficking and forced labour during the first half of this year.

Both Vietnamese and Thais have been rescued from job scam operations in Cambodia. On 2 September, police raids removed 59 Thais from similar operations, including 40 from the Rich World facility in Kandal Province, which in this case was called Pacific Real Estate according to VOD English.

Between 1 January and 20 August, 2022, Cambodian authorities found and rescued a total of 865 foreign victims of job scams and smuggling in 87 separate cases, according to a Facebook post from the Cambodian Ministry of Interior.

The other 19 Thai nationals were taken from a Sihanoukville-based investment fraud scheme with estimated damages exceeding 50 million baht (about 1.4 million USD). The damages of the Rich World / Pacific Real Estate call centre scam are estimated to exceed 100 million baht, (roughly 2.7 million USD).

Call scammers pretend to be police officers and claim to be calling from the post office or international carrier DHL. The Chrey Thom phone scam tricked victims into thinking they were under investigation for fraud or money laundering. Additionally, the scammers in Sihanoukville engaged in a complex financial fraud operation, attracting victims with social media ads that promised large returns on small investments.

No nationalities spared

Just two weeks prior to the Vietnamese and Thai rescues, 9 Taiwanese victims of human trafficking were returned to Taoyuan International Airport after a joint investigation by Taiwanese and Thai authorities according to Focus Taiwan.

A further 3 people remain in Bangkok facing follow-up investigations. All were allegedly lured to Cambodia on false pretences of lucrative jobs but were forced into working illegally instead.

The Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Police Agency have received requests for help from some 340 Taiwanese who say they have been tricked into job scams in Cambodia.

Malaysians have also been caught up in job scam operations. Malaysian Ambassador to Cambodia Eldeen Husaini Mohd Hashim told the Straits Times that more than 100 Malaysians have been rescued by the Embassy from syndicates in Cambodia.

From Hong Kong to Taipei, and across ASEAN, reports on human trafficking and forced labour are widespread and affect thousands of individuals irrespective of nationality., Al Jazeera’s recent 101 East investigative documentary released on 15 July picked up this issue, delving into the tortured lives of various foreign call-centre workers held in Cambodia against their will.

On 4 September, the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central) in Cambodia released an updated report on human trafficking and forced labour which found that the Cambodian authorities continue to downplay the situation as most compounds in Sihanoukville remain unnamed and their operations continue.

A victim interviewed in the report stated that the compounds are “strictly guarded, and workers [faced] violent torture, sexual harassment, starvation, and confinement”. The report also found that the nature of the work has changed as the unnamed businesses have adopted new business models in real estate and technology. Workers toil under strict security and are not allowed to leave. The authorities have turned a blind eye to these centres according to Central Executive Director Moeun Tola.

Job scam operations are not limited to Cambodia. On 4 September, a New Straits Times report found that a Malaysian citizen had been trafficked through Thailand to his death in Myanmar. On August 30, the parents of 23-year-old Goi Zhan Feng travelled to Bangkok in search of their missing son. They suspected that he had fallen victim to a scam after he messaged them asking for RM 80,000 (a little under 18,000 USD) claiming to be unwell and unclear about his whereabouts.

His parents were horrified to learn that he had been allegedly admitted to a hospital in Mae Sot on the Thai-Myanmar border on 11 April, before dying a month later.

The US has downgraded several ASEAN countries on its human trafficking index, according to the US 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, which downgraded Indonesia from Tier 2 to the Tier 2 watchlist and added Vietnam, Cambodia, and Brunei to its trafficking blacklist. These three countries joined Malaysia and Myanmar on the Tier 3 blacklist, the lowest of the three designations.

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