Cambodia scams: Lured and trapped into slavery in South East Asia
22 September 2022
Lured by ads promising easy work and extravagant perks, many are tricked into travelling to Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand. Once they arrive, they are held prisoner and forced to work in online scam centres known as "fraud factories".
Human trafficking has long been an endemic problem in South East Asia. But experts say criminal networks are now looking further afield and preying on a different type of victim.
Their targets tend to be 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 traffickers who need skilled labour to conduct online criminal activity, ranging from love scams known as "pig butchering" and crypto fraud, to money laundering and illegal gambling.
The abuse often results in lasting trauma. Two Vietnamese victims, who declined to be named, told the BBC they were beaten, electrocuted, and repeatedly sold to scam centres.
While Cambodia has emerged as a major hotspot for the scam centres, many have also popped up in border towns in Thailand and Myanmar. Most of them appear to be Chinese-owned or linked to Chinese entities, according to reports.
These companies are often cover for Chinese criminal syndicates, said rescue and advocacy group Global Anti-Scam Organization (Gaso).
While Chinese-run telecom and online scams have long been a problem, Covid changed everything, say experts.
Criminal networks figured out how to quickly pivot to online operations during the pandemic. Many of the traffickers also used to target Chinese workers, but China's strict travel restrictions and multiple lockdowns have cut off this major source of labour, prompting 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.