The luring of Thais to work for scam organizations in neighbouring countries has become a regular tragedy in the age of pandemic lockdowns. In the past two years, thousands have been rescued only to become victims of the judicial system, while the traffickers escape free through loopholes.
“I travelled from Sukhothai. The meeting point was at Aranyaprathet. When arrived, I stayed at the hotel, waiting to be picked up. The Chinese boses sent people to pick me up and take me from Aranyaprathet to Sihanoukville.
“They took me to a certain house. I started to doubt. At that time there was a transport van and a person was saying ‘be careful of being swindled’. But I was with the Chinese businessmen already so I could not return.”
The decision not to step back brought Nop (pseudonym) and his relative to Sihanoukville, a city in southwestern Cambodia famous as the destination for massive Chinese investment but also as a base for online scam operations.
“What I did was to dupe people into stock trading, using beautiful women as profile photos to trick people. Our work was monitored all the time. There were CCTVs, and Thai and Chinese supervisors checking my chats all the time.”
Once he realised that the job was entirely different from the “Online Marketing Officer” posted in the job ads, Nop asked the boss if he could return to Thailand, only to find that he had to pay over a hundred thousand baht to buy himself out. Seeking help is no easier; a Vietnamese got caught doing that and was brutally beaten and sold to other scammers.
Despite this example, Nop decided to take the cashless route and asked for help. He was not so lucky. The bosses somehow found out that a distress call for help had been made to the outside world. Nop was the suspect and shared the same fate as his colleague.
“I was given an electric shock in the back. I got hit and slapped on the face and body. They were Chinese and Thai. About ten of them.” After the beating, he was sold to work as a scammer in another hotel in the same city.
This account was given by Nop who appeared with his identity concealed in a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) in September 2022. It is only one of thousands of stories of victims who shared similar fates as people looked for jobs outside economically-stricken Thailand during the pandemic.
What has not been revealed is that rescues are becoming more difficult, traffickers still enjoy the freedom to operate, and victims have become criminals in their home country.
Let’s go digging for gold
From 2018 to 2022, the estimated amount of remittances from abroad was about 970 billion baht, according to the Overseas Employment Administration Division. This total has been on an upward trend since the Covid-19 pandemic started in 2019.
And if you are looking for job opportunities in foreign countries in 2022, you can find many on social media.
For Cambodia, a post in the “Seeking Job Poipet Hotline” Facebook group advertises for an admin officers at the Holiday Poipet Hotel. The job involves customer service and replying to chats. The salary starts at 13,000 baht and rises to 15,000 baht after probation.
Another post in the same group looks for an admin officer to work on online sales and trans-border e-commerce. Applicants are required to have typing and computer skills. The post also looks for team leaders with 25,000-30,000 baht salaries.
A post in the “Find job Poipet (safe)” Facebook group, looks for Chinese speakers to work in Myawaddy, a city on the Myanmar border with Thailand. The salary is 50,000 baht with free lodging and 4 meals per day.
A post from “Find job Poipet, Sihanouk, Phnom Penh '' looks for admin officers with 19,000-30,000 baht salaries, free accommodation, food, and monthly and birthday bonuses.
It is no secret that cities in Myanmar and Cambodia bordering Thailand are home to many entertainment complexes and casinos. When the borders were closed to prevent the spread of Covid-19, their once robust economies became a place for online gambling and scam businesses.
Scam operations have swindled people into sending their money into thin air and lured people into jobs with the promise of good pay and welfare. From interviews with some victims in 2021, we found that some were paid, and some were not. There were also people who were not assigned the work as described in the job ads
Victim to one, criminal to another
Nop was rescued, but was later charged by the police for conspiring in embezzlement in a transnational criminal manner, a serious offense similar to the one facing big shots like Tun Min Latt or triad gangs running “grey businesses” that have been recently exposed.
Nop is not the only one to be charged. Jaruwat Jinmonca, Vice President of the Immanuel Foundation, a NGO that works on rescuing and supporting scam victims, said he knew of 24 others who have shared Nop’s fate, and there may be more than a thousand that he doesn’t know about.
Jaruwat said the Foundation has been using many means to rescue people from scamming jobs, in both public and covert operations. It also provides legal and psychological support later on.
After being rescued, victims are subjected to a classification process based on the situation they have faced. They are interviewed and processed by government officers and civil society representatives before the interviewers make a collective decision to see if they really are victims or not.
According to Jaruwat, evidence that can be used to affirm their status as victims are indications that they were lured to work there such as job ads or invitation chats.
This process, however, is not enough to prove their innocence before the law.
Prawit Roikaew, Deputy Chief Prosecutor on human trafficking cases, said that most evidence gained in online scam victim cases comes from the victims. Some victims had to destroy the little evidence that they had to avoid being caught by their bosses. This, plus other factors, makes it hard to prosecute the traffickers due to the weakness of the evidence.
“Aside from oral testimony, we don’t have any other kind of evidence because it seems that we don’t get much cooperation from the country of origin. They give us cooperation in helping get our people back, but in terms of collecting evidence, there is nothing concrete,” said Prawit.
Since 2008, Thailand has criminalised human trafficking and forced labour through passing the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act. Section 41 exempts victims from specific types of wrongdoing. But scamming people is not included in the exemption, which is why police officers have no choice but to charge them, leaving it up to the courts to decide their innocence.
Hard to rescue the victims, even harder to punish the organizers
Jaruwat said the pleas for help still came mainly from Cambodia. What is different is that the base of operations has shifted away from the Thai-Cambodia border. However, some Indians rescued from scammers in ethnic-controlled zones in Myanmar told him that there were Thai people working there as well.
Pol Capt Kritsana Eiamsa-ard of the Sa Kaeo police, who has been actively working on rescuing scam victims from Cambodia, explained that the scammer bases have moved to Bavet, a Cambodian town bordering Vietnam, in order to evade the activities of the Thai authorities in Sihanoukville and Poipet. The trend has been underway since March-April 2022.
The Sa Kaeo police said that although Bavet is only about 160 kilometres from Phnom Penh, the change of location has forced the police to rework all details needed to conduct rescue operations such as the layout of the city and its facilities.
Since online scamming has become a public problem, the Royal Thai Police has shown a serious commitment to suppressing networks inside Thailand. However, a systematic way to deal with what seem to be transnational networks is still in question.
Pol Gen Surachate ‘Big Joke’ Hakparn, Deputy Commissioner of the Royal Thai Police, speaking on the same panel as Nop, said that despite the rescue of over a thousand victims and heavy crackdowns, the scamming did not seem to decrease.
He recalled a time in 2021 when he collaborated in a rescue mission in Sihanoukville. After investigations were able to pinpoint the places where 3,000 Thais were working, he planned with Royal Thai Police Commissioner, Pol Gen Damrongsak Kittiprapas to bring the Navy ship HTMS Chakri Naruebet to rescue them.
However, after the plan and location of the raid were shared with the Cambodian authorities, the scammers somehow found out and relocated the workers somewhere else, leaving only 30 to be found. The police spy was also badly beaten and thrown beside a lake.
As Surachate tried to bring the remaining victims back to Thailand, a Chinese man asked him for 50,000 baht per person in exchange, but later allowed them to return for free after receiving a phone call from a certain big shot.
From this experience, the deputy police chief concluded that one important part of the problem was a lack of serious will.
On the victim’s side, Jaruwat said it was not easy to have everyone cooperate with the investigators. The reason is economic.
“For someone to come to file a complaint and testify to the investigators, they have to take time to travel and have high travel costs for roundtrip tickets, accommodation and food. Actually our Foundation supported people as well as possible, but most of the victims think they applied for a job and could not leave it.
“Some people think it’s all over and want to start their lives again. They want to work because everyone who came back has economic problems. They went to Cambodia because they wanted money,” said Jaruwat.
Systematic problem needs systematic solution
Prawit thinks that Section 41 of the anti-human trafficking law should be improved to allow more flexibility to exempt wrongdoing. He also sees that international cooperation to tackle the crime should be more concrete.
In January 2023, Prawit and other Thai authorities working on human trafficking will visit Cambodia and Myanmar to discuss a more concrete operational framework. After that, they will conduct an online meeting with the Chinese authorities to do the same thing.
“We may have to have more discussions with our neighbouring countries on how, if cases like this occur, will we work together, how will we investigate and collect evidence together.”
“Because today, it is like we are doing it alone while our neighbours, in the matter of suppression, have not given us much collaboration. … It looks like we can only help people but cannot suppress the ones who are running these scams, the ones who really benefit,” said Prawit.
Kritsana, who gets intensive collaboration, believes there should be activities to foster better relationships among officers in each country in order to make collaboration easier.
Jaruwat finds that a similar attitude is needed to solve a problem - seeing that job seekers turned online scammers is a form of human trafficking…Most people see them as criminals who cause people trouble.”
“Everyone has to look at it in the same way, that the scammers in Cambodia are part of human trafficking and understand that this is human trafficking. There are Chinese people who are human traffickers.
“Our fellow Thais were lured to work in Cambodia, were tricked by the Chinese into going there with the real intention to work. … I am not afraid to say that they didn’t know. They really went there to make money, to do honest work that was claimed to be legal.”
Kritsana wants job seekers to be aware of ‘too good to be true’ job opportunities. There has to be very thorough research before jumping on board, precautions have to be taken on the grounds that it is related to forced labour.
“In every case, their father, mother, relatives warned them, but they were stubborn about coming. Some were invited by friends, some wanted to take the risk. They wanted to work because they were told they would get high salaries. … Everyone saw the news, but never thought it would happen to them.”
For Thais facing trouble in Thailand, a hotline contact for Consular Affairs is +6625728442. FAQs are also available here.