Lured into post-pandemic slavery by Southeast Asian online scam gangs

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And if you were told that Chinese criminal gangs are also profiting from the government-sponsored Belt and Road Initiative investment scheme, mainly at the expense of Chinese nationals themselves? Chinese-run cyber scams are increasingly expanding from Cambodia to nearby lawless lands, as the BRI’s trans-regional Southeast Asian corridor is serving as a high road for the worrying spread of post-pandemic slavery.

The humanitarian crisis due to rampant crime that is plaguing Cambodia has much to do with the country’s bleak economic climate, endemic state corruption and weak rule of law, which allow thousands of victims to be swindled, trafficked and forcibly turned into labour for criminal gangs. Such under-regulated economy, applied to the labour-intensive activities that took hold in Cambodia following the country’s 2013 accession to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investment programme, has led to the flourishing of criminal rings intent on escaping government repression in the guise of private companies owned by Chinese-origin businessmen.

Cambodia has thus become a notorious “place where criminals thrive” as crime syndicates often buy protection for their businesses from local patrons or tycoons who reside among the top ranks of the national élite. Notably, the coastal city of Sihanoukville – one of China’s first overseas economic and trade cooperation zones – has seen an inexorable influx of Chinese migrants since the 2010 inauguration of the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (SSEZ) enshrined in an intergovernmental agreement between the People’s Republic of China and Cambodia. With 90% of its industries invested in and run by Chinese, Sihanoukville has become today the landmark of the BRI collaboration between the two countries.

Chinese investment and uncontrolled development have, however, changed the city’s character, leading to an outpouring of real estate and gambling industries responsible for illicit human trafficking, arbitrary detention, and forced labour on scam victims lured by promises of high-paying jobs. Surprisingly, in the crosshairs of such fraudulent practices are mainly Chinese nationals themselves who, despite rising demand for gambling, cannot indulge in such vice in the motherland, where this is considered an illegal practice with the sole exception of state-run lotteries.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s largest port city and strategic hub for foreign trade, has long been considered the country’s tourist destination par excellence. Yet, considerable incentives in the form of waivers on import and export taxes have exponentially fuelled Chinese-led online gaming networks that, at their peak in 2019, were “generating several billions of dollars annually” and “employing tens of thousands”. While this land repopulation might at first seem to boost Cambodia’s development, the dizzying demand for greater space to contain the influx of workers from surrounding countries and the ensuing unprecedented boom in the real estate industry rapidly reshaped the city’s structure and dynamism, which proved deficient in regulating the businesses fostered by the wealthy rising investment system. After discovering huge sums of money exceeding $145 billion in illicit outflows exported by online gambling and underground banking from Beijing, China – namely Cambodia’s largest source of aid and investment – not only launched a fierce crackdown in the mainland, but exerted strong pressure on the Cambodian government to implement more effective law enforcement. Accordingly, Cambodia has also attempted to curtail gaming activities by stopping issuing gambling licences as of February 2020. Nevertheless, Cambodia’s lax rule of law has allowed Chinese “private companies” to make huge profits from the online gambling apparatus over the past years and caused a drastic proliferation of digital scams. This only brought to the surface the inherent crime networks at the heart of numerous investment projects, which – following the ban on gambling roughly coinciding with the Covid-19 pandemic – has left countless facilities under construction and fuelled a unique criminal underworld of human trafficking and digital scams, which has now become Sihanoukville’s main source of profit. Today, next to immense lavish buildings, like gaudy multi-storey hotels or gleaming casinos, heavily guarded scam syndicates swarm in Sihanoukville, surrounded by high barbed-wire barriers and iron grilles delineating areas forbidden to the outside public. As closed management systems, these compounds are expressly designed not only for outsiders to have no way of peeking at what occurs inside and for residents to have no external interaction, but also for policemen – who often stand near these shady compounds – to be intimidated or hindered from investigating further inside such compounds. Thus, human traffickers, constantly hunting for their prey, “can smuggle you over anytime”.

Online scams – popping up like mushrooms 24/7 on pages or groups on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, Telegram or Tinder – involve recruits being lured through fraudulent outreach schemes such as get-rich-quick games, pretend love stories or, most often, fake job postings with overpaid salaries and no formal contracts or need for compensation upon job abandonment. Aiming to increase fraud credibility, online scammers – who operate multiple fake accounts to hype up group chats – are scripted to engage their victims, win their sympathy and trust and entice them to either invest their funds in bitcoin or smuggle them to Cambodia to become a workforce and commodity of profit  and exchange between different syndicate compounds. Cross-border crime rings that transport, exploit, and traffic the victims deceived through the web therefore take away the recruits’ freedom as soon as they enter scammers’ vehicles or compounds, with smugglers seizing the victims’ passports and assigning them a monetary value to be paid in ransom should they want to be freed or need to be sold to other scam syndicates. This endless cycle of preys lured onto online platforms who, under duress, turn themselves into predators and do not regain their liberty until compensation for “damages” is paid to criminal scam gangs has often been defined as post-pandemic Cyber Slavery.

In such a context, Cambodia’s depressed and unregulated economy has undoubtedly served as a catalyst and facilitator for organised crime, just as recent years’ pandemic crisis has further weakened Southeast Asia, which has been crushed by heavy economic and financial pressures. But beyond that, one cannot help but notice how the Chinese BRI trade agreement and its tax exemptions and lack of a mature regulatory and accountability system play a considerable role in attracting a wide range of opportunists, often including felons seeking high-risk ventures. Moreover, while the China-Cambodia Law Enforcement Cooperation and Coordination has achieved some feeble results in the clampdown on cross-border crime, various crime syndicates – with huge resources and vast networks – are scouting along the BRI China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor (CICPEC) for new safe havens in lawless lands where political instability would further jeopardise the prospects of successful relief activities for trafficking victims.

Although Cambodia claims to be committed to restoring social order and national security, it still remains far from meeting minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking, especially in terms of the diversion of investigations and/or criminal trials of smugglers with political, criminal or economic ties to state officials. The Cambodian government, which thus bears irrefutable responsibilities in the cross-border illicit practices conducted by Southeast Asian scam gangs on its soil, needs once and for all to reinforce its rule of law, prosecute the perpetrators of such crimes, and promptly halt their undisturbed reaping of victims backed by Cambodia’s endemic corruption. It is also imperative to provide for targeted and effective rescue operations that will eventually foster and not interfere – as often happens – with activists engaged in rescuing victims of cybercrime and human trafficking.

Last but not least, Cambodia and its neighbouring countries at risk or already in a state of contamination can no longer neglect to promote clear awareness of the issue of online scams in dramatic proliferation within the Southeast Asian population. Indeed, it is remarkable how the workforce held captive under duress by criminal rings conducting illicit businesses in places like Sihanoukville does not consist of low-skilled workers, but instead of young, literate, cosmopolitan people, capable of complicated fraudulent tactics, who are nevertheless recruited through deception. While it is true that “before the pandemic, it would not be likely for such workers to be trafficked, […] to come to Cambodia looking for work, or take a higher-risk job”, because of the economic distress that fostered the deception of present-day forced labour it becomes vital to advocate for conscious information that prevents the spread of the clandestine online scams and the resulting reprehensible human trafficking that are tarnishing Cambodia’s image.

As China has tightened financial outflows, the crime industry has started to expand its operations to other non-Chinese destinations along the BRI, where Chinese businessmen had already developed a strong foothold. Consequently, as non-Chinese-speaking victims will be increasingly targeted, Cambodia should better equip itself to avoid further political unrest and set a precedent for closer cooperation within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on issues of common concern.

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