In a recent report to the ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission on Human Rights, a group of NGOs highlight a growing pattern of human rights violations across Southeast Asia involving trafficking rackets that are fuelled by scam online employment schemes. The report echoes recent information that the Global Detention Project has received from sources in Cambodia about overcrowded detention centres in that country that are filled with trafficking victims–including children–who were trapped in fake job scams, later arrested for alleged crimes, and then detained for immigration violations.
According to the civil society ASEAN report–which was submitted by Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Tenaganita Malaysia, and Migrant Care Indonesia–since 2019, thousands of migrant workers from Southeast Asia have been trafficked overseas by criminal gangs and forced to work in online scam and fraud activities. Many of those who have managed to escape or secure rescue have found themselves placed in immigration detention or facing criminal prosecution.
The report appears to reveal clear violations of the non-punishment principle, a critical human rights norm that undergirds the UN anti-trafficking protocol, and the ASEAN Trafficking Convention, as well as other regional and domestic laws aimed at protecting victims of trafficking from abuse. (For more on the non-punishment principle, watch the GDP’s April 2023 interactive webinar, “Protecting Victims of Trafficking from Immigration Detention.”)
According to the report, thousands of migrant workers from across the ASEAN region have been lured by false job advertising into travelling to Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, or the Philippines. Upon arrival, they have been driven to large, highly securitised buildings known as “fraud factories” operated by criminal gangs, where they have been forced to conduct criminal online activity such as money laundering, crypto fraud, and romance schemes. Victims report harrowing abuse inside these facilities, including armed guards seizing passports and preventing individuals from leaving; violent attacks including beatings and electrocutions; the denial of regular access to drinking water, food, and natural light; and sexual assault.
Many of these scam operations are industrial in size, and the number of victims involved is considerable. In September 2022, for example, more than 1,000 foreigners were rescued from three compounds in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville. Such abuse has also received attention in the international press, including in an Al Jazeera documentary that features distressing videos from inside some compounds. To leave, many must either pay significant sums of money–or risk dangerous escape attempts.
Despite clear evidence of trafficking, authorities often fail to identify those who have escaped or been released as trafficking victims. Instead, victims are placed in immigration detention facilities or prosecuted for involvement in criminal activity. In Thailand, at least 347 people have been prosecuted since March 2022.
The Case of Cambodia
In recent months, the GDP has received several reports echoing the information provided in this complaint–particularly regarding the widespread detention and extortion of cyber scam trafficking victims in Cambodia.
Although it has not historically been a key destination country for migrant workers, since the COVID-19 pandemic rising numbers of foreign workers have been lured to Cambodia by false promises of work. In November 2022, a Cambodian official estimated that up to 100,000 people could have been trafficked into these situations of forced labour.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one local observer told the GDP that as a result of these ongoing scams and officials’s ineffective and harmful response to it, the country’s immigration detention facilities have been growing increasingly overcrowded.
Rescued from the “fraud factories” by police, many victims have found themselves placed in overcrowded detention centres. Instead of recognising these people as victims, officials charge them with immigration violations for overstaying their visas. Many are held in official detention centres run by immigration authorities (Cambodia operates two such facilities, in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville), but some are also held in an informal manner at a district police station in Phnom Penh that was originally intended to serve as a short-term police lockup but where immigration detainees can remain for extended periods of time until they are deported.
Sources informed the Global Detention Project that Cambodian immigration detention centres are difficult to gain access to, which they say may be because officials seek to bribe vulnerable detainees before they are deported. Detainees commonly report officers attempting to extort money. Media reports have also highlighted cases involving officers demanding bribes to return confiscated phones, to provide a bed, bedding, and fans, to deliver food, and to secure release. Although detainees are permitted to receive visitors, observers speculate that this is merely to enable them to access money to pay for guards’ extortion efforts. Corruption is rife in Cambodia, particularly across the police and judiciary. In 2022, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranked the country as one of the worst in the region.
In 2022, the US State Department downgraded Cambodia in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report in response to numerous national and international media reports on the trafficking, detention, and extortion of victims in Cambodia. Cambodian authorities subsequently commenced a crackdown on fraud factories. However, this was also accompanied by an increase in forced deportations. According to information received by Vice from a spokesman of Cambodia’s immigration department, 3,740 foreign nationals were deported between 1 January and 22 October 2022.