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Article

17 Dec 2021

Author:
SHAUN TURTON and HUANG YAN, Nikkei Asia (Japan)

Cambodia: Chinese business steps in to help migrant workers who are forced to work at online scam sweatshops as law enforcement remains weak

"China grapples with Cambodia's failure to curb crime gangs" 17 December 2021

On the outskirts of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, a dozen or so people wait in the whitewashed lobby of what used to be a budget hotel. The building has been turned into a safe house for people rescued from criminal gangs running online scams, and the gathering, on a Monday afternoon in November, is to welcome new arrivals.

They have escaped or been rescued from what are in effect scam sweatshops. The gangs that run them enslave people who are lured from China, and increasingly other countries, with promises of high-paying jobs. Upon arrival they are forced, under threat of violence, to defraud people online. [...]

The growing humanitarian crisis highlights the persistence of criminality in a country where law enforcement is weak and plagued by endemic official corruption. It also shows how, for all Cambodia's dependence on China, there are limits to Beijing's power to control the lawlessness in this strategically important Southeast Asian state.

No less than China Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi has called for action on the issue. During a September visit to Phnom Penh, where China operates a joint law enforcement office, Wang called for Cambodia to help eliminate online gambling. [...]

Pech Pisey, the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said the murky sector is unlikely to be stamped out because of what he called Cambodia's "corrupt system." Criminal networks can buy protection from a local patron in the nation's elite, he said. [...]

The developer of the site, called the Thmor Da Special Economic Zone, is Try Pheap, a logging tycoon blacklisted by the U.S. government who has been an adviser to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

His company, Try Pheap Group, did not respond to an emailed request for comment and a phone number for its spokesperson was not answered. [...]

Earlier this month, 11 Chinese chambers of commerce in the nation issued a rare public joint statement, expressing their concern about the "worsening situation." They said "brazen" and "cruel" criminality "threatened the lives and security" of Chinese expats in Cambodia. [...]

While careful to acknowledge they will defer to local law enforcement, the Chinese chambers of commerce have begun taking proactive steps to address their community's concerns.

A few days after their joint statement, the groups launched a so-called 'rat catching' initiative to help authorities arrest criminals. As part of the effort, they will set up 24-hour tip lines and may offer rewards for information.

With Cambodia mostly lacking welfare services even for its own citizens, it has also fallen to members of the Chinese community to support victims rescued from online scam gangs. [...]

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