Cambodian scam industry enslaves thousands
Advocacy groups fight against human trafficking in Southeast Asia
Miracle, an Indonesian woman, wanted a reasonable salary so she could save for retirement. It wasn’t long after she accepted a job as an online marketer and flew to Cambodia that she realized she would never receive the promised money or housing. Instead, her employers forced her to scam people while holding her prisoner in the compound where she worked. If she failed to meet the revenue target set by her employers, they physically punished her. They told her that to gain her freedom, she had to pay $2,800. Instead, Miracle was rescued through the joint efforts of the Cambodian National Police and the International Justice Mission (IJM).
Miracle is one of an estimated 27.6 million human trafficking victims worldwide. In Cambodia, at least 100,000 people still work in online cryptocurrency, investment, and gaming scams. In the perfect storm of COVID-19 lockdowns and economic hardship, traffickers capitalized on people’s willingness to take greater risks to find a job. These types of scams burgeoned and found safe harbor in countries with low criminal accountability, like Cambodia.
The World Justice Project ranks Cambodia 139th of 140 countries in “civil justice” and last for “free of corruption.” Nearby countries Myanmar and Laos allow criminals to transport trafficking victims across their borders and likewise rank low on the rule-of-law scale.
Unlike many types of trafficking that prey on the poor, scam traffickers entice young, multilingual college graduates by promising lucrative jobs. On social media, they post generic job titles such as “customer relations” or “sales” instead of specific job descriptions. Recruiters arrange transport into Cambodia and then take their victims’ passports. Job seekers suffer physical, mental, and sometimes sexual abuse while held under guard and behind razor wire, forced to entice others to join them or give money to the scam.
Jake Sims is the country director for Cambodia with International Justice Mission. He said Myanmar’s trafficking problem has ballooned, especially in recent months: “The size and level of expansion we’re seeing of these compounds in Myanmar is really significant and rapid.”
Part of that might be due to Cambodia’s response to international pressure. Last year, the U.S. State Department downgraded Cambodia to Tier 3 in its Trafficking in Persons report—the worst possible level. In a highly publicized effort, the Cambodian government cracked down on syndicates running the scam centers. Following the raids, several city center compounds in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh sit mostly empty. IJM confirmed at least 2,000 laborers were removed. But some victims reported that operations managed to move to a different location ahead of authorities’ arrival.
“It appears many more have merely been displaced to new locations in Cambodia and then increasingly abroad,” Sims said. “Far from reducing the size of the industry, we believe that it is just becoming more insidious and more difficult to address.”
Addressing the situation means dealing with a new type of crime and supporting its victims. Sims pointed to the person making the scam calls: “These folks are often trapped at the bottom of a much larger industry and frequently have very little choice in the matter. So that person is a criminal. They’re also a victim. It’s not a simple, clean story every time.”
Hundreds of thousands remain trapped in the industry, and tens of millions are trafficked globally. Noel Brewer Yeatts, president of the Christian humanitarian organization World Help, looks at the numbers differently.
“The bad thing about those numbers, even though they accurately describe the problem, is it overwhelms people,” she said. She prefers to think of those numbers as being made up of lots of individuals. Then she can focus on the ones she can help immediately.
Sims of IJM also recommends an individual approach when someone receives a scam call. “Ask the caller if they’re being forced to work and where they’re from. Get them to send the name or GPS coordinates of where they’re located. If they’re in need of help, they should contact their embassy or a local NGO. Direct them to ijm.org.” This will derail the scam in the short run and opens up a possible exit for the victim.
The organization has helped rescue and care for more than 100 people caught in this type of trafficking, including Miracle, the Indonesian woman. She has since returned home and testified in the trial of the agent who offered her the job in Cambodia.