Recently, reports of the trafficking of citizens from Taiwan, Malaysia, China, and other south-east Asian countries into scam operations in Cambodia have arisen. Reportedly, many were recruited by individuals and labor brokers under false promises, only to arrive in Cambodia and find out that they are in deep trouble. Thousands are trapped in these Chinese-run scamming compounds in Cambodia, mostly in the city of Sihanoukville, which saw massive Chinese investments in the past couple of years, and was turned into a casino metropolis. Sihanoukville, a special economic zone under a Belt and Road Initiative agreement between China and Cambodia, has now become a hub for human trafficking and scam activities.
Sihanoukville (ក្រុងព្រះសីហនុ), originally named as Kampong Som, is a coastal city in Cambodia and the capital of the Preah Sihanouk Province. At the tip of a peninsula in the Gulf of Thailand, the city was once known as a tourist destination. In 2010, Cambodia signed an agreement with the Chinese government to jointly invest in the development of the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (SSEZ) in the city. With a total area of 11.13 square kilometers, this economic zone was originally developed mainly for textile and garment, hardware and machinery industries. It is the largest special economic zone in Cambodia. In 2016, China and Cambodia signed the “Memorandum of Understanding between the People’s Republic of China and the Kingdom of Cambodia on the Preparation of the Joint Promotion of the The Memorandum of Understanding between the People’s Republic of China and the Kingdom of Cambodia on the Preparation of the Outline of Cooperation Plan for the Construction of the “Belt and Road” (中华人民共和国与柬埔寨王国共同推进“一带一路”建设合作规划纲要), officially marking Cambodia a participating country in the BRI.
Today, China is the largest investor in Cambodia, and Sihanoukville is seen as a landmark of the BRI collaboration between China and Cambodia. According to news sources, Chinese investment in Cambodia has exceeded 12.5 billion U.S dollars. Indeed, China has invested in many large infrastructure projects in Cambodia. For example, in 2019, China’s state-owned company, China Road and Bridge Corporation, invested over 2 billion U.S. dollars building Cambodia’s first highway connecting Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and Sihanoukville. China has also gifted Cambodia bridges, roads, and a national stadium that costs 150 million U.S. dollars, all under the name of the BRI.
Sihanoukville is also among China’s first overseas economic and trade cooperation zones created through bilateral government agreement. As a special economic zone, companies entering Sihanoukville enjoy an array of incentives including waivers on export tax and import tax for crude material involved in production under the Law on Investment of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Sihanoukville has therefore also attracted thousands of private Chinese investors.
Indeed, since the inauguration of China’s BRI in 2013, the city has seen a large influx of Chinese immigrants. In 2013, the number of Chinese nationals in Cambodia was around 80,000, a number that grew to 250,000 in 2019. During this period, various reports have remarked that Chinese investments and unchecked development have changed the city’s character. Rose with these discourse were issues of ethnic conflicts, environmental pollution, crimes, and gentrification and the displacement of local and indigenous populations.
Moreover, most of the Chinese investment, according to various reports, concentrated in the real estate development and gambling industry. Despite gambling being illegal both in China and in Cambodia, Chinese investors took advantage of the laxed rule of law in Cambodia to run an array of on- and off-line gambling rings, extracting massive amounts of profit. Reportedly, the rise of the gambling industry in Sihanoukville is accompanied by an increasing issue of crimes, violent and otherwise, and gang activities.
The trafficking of Chinese individuals into Cambodian scam rings has been an issue since the inauguration of the economic zone. The issue of trafficking even captured the Chinese diplomatic mission’s attention, as it issued warnings to Chinese citizens in Cambodia to “Stay away from online gambling and wire fraud syndicates” [远离网赌电诈集团]. Bo Xiong, Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia, addressed this issue in 2018, claiming that China will not stand behind Sihanoukville turning into a “Chinatown” or a gambling city. In the same speech, he added that some (Chinese) individuals of low moral values engaged in illegal activities abroad, including the participation in illegal gambling and telecommunication fraud, and drunk and disorderly conducts. According to Xiong, China supports Cambodian officials’ legal actions against these Chinese nationals, and is expressly opposed to “…Chinese citizens to go abroad to participate in gambling, and the development of a gambling industry that specifically targets Chinese people.” He also called on “…all Chinese citizens coming to Cambodia to be clean and stay away from gambling.” Despite gambling appeared to have presented a larger problem for the Chinese officials, fraud activities and human trafficking has already been an underlying issue, as alluded in Xiong’s statement.
The Chinese diplomatic mission’s attitude against gambling resonated with the Cambodian officials, as evident in the joint policy and executive decision in cracking down in gambling activities in Cambodian. In 2019, the Chinese and Cambodian officials engaged in a joint law enforcement mission cracking down on cross-national crimes. The Cambodian government also announced that no online gambling permit will be issued beginning in the January of 2020. This joint action, however, did not shake the core of the illegal scam businesses operating in Cambodia. Meanwhile, China’s real estate developers experienced a huge downturn, leading to hundreds of unfinished construction sites within China, a scene that was extended to Sihanoukville. More than 200,000 Chinese left Sihanoukville as the market in Sihanoukville continued to slump. Cyber scamming operations, then, gradually replaced the Chinese-ran casinos.
This shift in the local economic ecosystem, combined with the economic and policy impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, has also led to a slew of human impacts. On the one hand, the amount of Chinese nationals crossing the border to Cambodia dwindled due to China’s strict border restrictions, on the other, young people from other Asian countries were pushed to leave the country in search of work under the COVID-induced job market low. These, combined with the pull from Cambodian scam operations, which expanded their victim pool to individuals outside of China (due to the pandemic), have led to the current evolving situation wherein thousands of victims were involved, and new victims from different countries are reported almost daily.
The cyber scam problem in Cambodia runs deep. According to media sources, Sihanoukville is not the only destination of online casinos and scamming operations in Cambodia. Dozens of these online operations are scattered all over Cambodia, mostly across the border of Thailand and Laos, where thousands of victims from East and Southeast Asian countries are put into work. Inside these scamming rings, victims’ personal identification documents are confiscated, their freedom restricted, and worse, if victims refuse “work” or perform poorly, they could be locked up, beaten, electrocuted, or even sexually assaulted, and “resold” to other scam operations.
Victims are generally led into the scamming operations through deception. Smugglers, colloquially referred to as “snakeheads” (蛇头), attract victims through presenting lucrative businesses, job openings, or even cheap or free trips abroad. The trafficking scams vary and are updated and innovated regularly to evade law enforcement’s attention. For example, Mr. Tong, a worker in contact with CLW was “sold” to a scam compound in Sihanoukville because his friend offered him a good job opportunity in Cambodia, which turned out to be a trafficking scam. Another worker, Mr. Qiao’s situation was different. He told CLW that he worked in a third country, but when he had to return to China, he found out that the airfare for returning tickets is extremely expensive due to COVID. An intermediary company selling tickets informed Mr. Qiao that if he gets a ticket to Thailand through them, he will be able to get a cheaper ticket back to China within the Thai border. Mr. Qiao complied. However, after he landed, the intermediary told him to travel instead to Cambodia because the Thai tickets were sold out. Desperate to go home, Mr. Qiao complied again, and was then “sold” to a scam compound.
After the victims’ arrival in Cambodia, their passports are usually confiscated immediately, and the victims are sent to the scam compounds where dozens, or more, scam operations are active.
Reportedly, the “snakeheads” sell victims to the scam operations for a price of around 10,000 to 30,000 U.S. dollars per person. This money, in turn, becomes a means for the scam operations to control their victims: victims are asked to pay back what they’ve cost their “bosses” before they can leave. The scam operations are usually divided into a scam department and a personnel department, with the scam department responsible for scamming money and the personnel department responsible for scamming people. Many were reportedly forced to ask their families for money, engage in the cyber scam, or scam others, usually their friends and families, to Cambodia–and thus bring in more trafficking victims, in order to repay the “bosses.” Uncooperative victims and those who are deemed unlucrative could be “resold” to another scam operation for a higher amount of money, increasing the burden on the victim. Reportedly, these scam compounds are also lined with security, with security cameras and hired guards always present.
In these scamming operations, victims are in constant fear of physical assaults, rape, their mounting debt, being bought and sold, their potential untimely death, etc. Some social media accounts also published extortion videos sent to victims’ families as a means of extortion, although CLW has not been able to independently verify their claims. Moreover, with no legal documentation and no language skills, and under constant fear, victims have little option but to participate in scam operations. The mental toll it takes to transition from a victim of human trafficking to an accomplice to cyber scam is another issue, especially when some felt compelled to scam their friends and family in order to get out of the situation. Some, reportedly, also fear the criminal repercussions when and if they get out.
This fear, as it turns out, might not be unwarranted. According to a Chinese official source, in 2019, the collaborative enforcement between Cambodian and Chinese police has led to close to a thousand arrests, with most appearing to be involved in gambling and cyber scams. According to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, in 2021, some 19,000 individuals were arrested after returning to China for scamming and fraud allegations. Similar issues exist in Cambodia too. Baorong Chen, an activist in the Cambodia-China Charity Team who helped rescue a couple hundred of detained workers from Cambodian scam compounds, was sentenced to two years in prison at the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court with incitement to discriminate, false declaration, unlawful interference in the discharge of public functions, and unlawful use of certificate of profession. And these sentences were reportedly linked to his publication of a story about a scam operation allegedly harvesting a detained worker’s blood. The Chinese and Cambodian officials’ actions against individuals involved in cyber scams regardless of their status as victims of human trafficking have further narrowed their options.
If the victims of the scam compounds in Sihanoukville and beyond are to be rescued on a large scale, the Cambodian and Chinese officials will need to pursue remedial actions, not only to systematically rescue and repatriate them–with the series of fees that might generate–but also to reduce or exempt the victims from criminal liability for transitioning from victims to criminals and accomplice for fraud, human trafficking, and other crimes. Moreover, the Cambodian government’s inaction is a foundation to the prevalence of these scam compounds, and there is a need to not just rescue the victims, but to address the root causes.
When the the economic cooperation between China and Cambodia was first initiated, the situation in Sihanoukville was similar to the conditions saw in other BRI participating countries detailed earlier in CLW’s BRI report (to be released at the time of this article’s writing): mainlanders were introduced to Cambodia by intermediaries/labor brokers who generally ask the jobseekers a deposit upfront, and had their passports confiscated upon arrival, thus ripping some freedom of movement and freedom to change jobs off of the workers. If workers don’t want to work anymore, they usually need to compensate their company for “damages” that the companies claim–usually a few thousand dollars–before they can go home. Markers of human trafficking do present in these situations, albeit less blatant.
These issues are common in other BRI participating countries aside from Cambodia. As such, coercion and other conducts fitting to various international organizations’ definition of human trafficking are present in many BRI participating countries. However, Cambodia’s unregulated and economically depressed environment fostered this unique criminal underworld wherein human trafficking and other crimes have replaced casinos and infrastructure and real estate construction and became the main source of profit. Human trafficking and scam have thus mature into an industry in Sihanoukville, with victims involving citizens from Taiwan as well as other Asian countries.
Ultimately, as aforementioned, because Sihanoukville is an economic zone created between China and Cambodia under the BRI, and the city has since seen heavy Chinese investment, the Chinese and Cambodian officials bear irrefutable responsibilities in Sihanoukville’s problem of human trafficking and scam seen the world. The Cambodian officials, evidently, ought to strengthen the country’s rule of law and hold the culprits of transnational human trafficking crimes criminally responsible, aside from rescuing the victims; China’s poor standards and lack of a mature regulatory and accountability system for their own investment projects, and the officials lack of legal actions taken against companies that use different means to control the personal freedom of their workers, as seen also in other BRI projects, are also culpable.
Image used in this piece is taken from http://tech.sina.com.cn/csj/2020-01-09/doc-iihnzahk2939500.shtm