Scammed into scamming: the human trafficking crisis in Cambodia
A human trafficking crisis has been on the rise in Southeast Asia for a number of years now. Chinese organised crime syndicates are increasingly erecting “fraud factories” in Cambodia which lay home to thousands of trafficking victims. Hidden in office buildings and casinos, these “fraud factories” conduct online scams on a mass scale, generating billions in revenue, on the back of the work of trafficked individuals.
In their investigation into the problem, the US Department of State’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report: Cambodia downgraded the nation’s management of human trafficking from Tier 2 to Tier 3, a tier in which sanctions generally follow. Yet, despite the range of measures the US has adopted against Cambodia following their election, none have directly targeted the trafficking crisis. At the same time, the Cambodian government believes their current strategies and resource allocation are sufficient given their economic constraints. The following article will explore the crisis, its causes, and the solutions being pursued.
Well-educated and computer literate young adults are the predominant victims of the crisis. With many struggling to find employment that matches their skillset, online advertisements promising high-paying jobs in the finance industry are too valuable to ignore. Once interviewed, these companies relocate victims to Cambodia to begin ‘work’. It is upon meeting company officials on arrival that victims’ passports and phones are seized. Most are then transferred to compounds in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Poipet and Bavet.
Here, thousands of Southeast Asia’s young adults are forced to work 15 hours a day conducting “pig butchering”, or shāzhūpán, scamming schemes, wherein they ‘fatten someone up’ before taking all their worth. The trafficked individuals befriend others on social media, eventually tricking them into transferring money into fake cryptocurrency websites. If the victims refuse to participate in the scheme, or simply do not meet their daily quota, they face beatings and, in some cases, electrocution.
So where did the crisis come from?
1. Covid Pandemic
Southeast Asia is still recovering from the destruction of the COVID-19 pandemic on the region’s economies. There are limited opportunities for the growing number of educated and computer literate young adults in nations such as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Cambodia. Many of these individuals do not have the means to pursue opportunities elsewhere, and are underemployed in low-paying industries. Hence, they are more likely to fall victim to promises of higher paid and skilled opportunities.
Compounding the impact of the pandemic is the growing problem of corruption. In their 2022 investigation, the US found that many of Cambodia’s authorities are paid by Chinese organised crime gangs to ensure trafficking compounds are not inspected. Further, many who are to be inspected will be tipped off, with captives subsequently being moved elsewhere.
In some cases, those involved in the trafficking schemes have been identified and taken to court. Here however, the government is prosecuting individuals under labour laws as opposed to the 2008 Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation. While the latter incurs a sentence of 7-15 years in prison, those charged under labour laws are only being sentenced to 6 days to a month in prison.
3. China’s development of a wall along the Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar border.
In 2021, China concluded the erection of a fence along its shared border with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, resulting in informal travel between these countries becoming almost impossible. Although this did not cause the trafficking crisis, it did concentrate the issue into Cambodia. Firstly, many residents in the region relied on informal immigration into China for work. Now, these job opportunities are inaccessible. Secondly, Chinese organised crime networks could no longer smuggle Vietnamese, Laos and Myanmar nationals into the nation via this border. Hence, operations are moved to nations such as Cambodia, where it is far easier to traffick individuals.
What is and isn’t being done:
In the past 4 years, Cambodia has conducted a number of initiatives to combat human trafficking. In 2019, the National Committee for Counter Trafficking (NCCT) was established to create a 4 year action plan. They have focused particularly on educating citizens on the signs of trafficking and how to avoid it. In 2022, 192 anti-trafficking awareness raising campaigns were organised with the topic also being introduced into school curriculums.
Even so, since 2020, the NCCT and Cambodian government have not published a budget dedicated to preventing human trafficking. They have not only failed to publish data on the issue, but in their investigation the US found limited recorded data on incidences of human trafficking and the persons involved. Put simply, without data collection the government cannot locate nor forecast where future trafficking is likely to occur.
There are also a number of additional strategies Cambodia can take to mitigate the issue. These include increasing the number of workplace inspections, reallocating resources to police to work specifically on this matter and establishing an adequate witness protection program. However, such measures require significant resources of which Cambodia asserts not to have.
Nonetheless, Cambodian authorities have made progress on combating the issue in 2023 with reports indicating more and more successful rescues are taking place. Until Cambodia becomes more transparent, however, the significance of this data cannot be fully relied upon. Finally, other nations in the region, such as Japan, have also heavily invested in preventing human trafficking. Time will tell whether such investment will be enough to outpace the growth of human trafficking in the region.
Abby Wellington is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts and Journalism (International Relations and Economics) at The University of Queensland. An aspiring foreign affairs reporter, Abby is interested in the changing nature of international security in a globalised society.