SINGAPORE – For seven months, Mr Francis Kamugisha was forced to work every day in heavily guarded scam mills in Laos and Myanmar, after being lured to South-east Asia in August 2022 by the promise of an IT job.
His friend had referred him to an IT manager position at a data management company in Laos paying US$1,500 (S$2,040) a month.
Mr Kamugisha, who is Ugandan, grabbed the chance as he could not find stable employment in Dubai, where he was living at the time.
When he arrived in Laos’ capital Vientiane, two employees from the “company” picked him up and took him to his new workplace in Ton Pheung district, which borders Myanmar.
He sensed something was wrong when he saw armed guards patrolling the compound and was told to sign a contract that was different from the terms he had been offered.
He said: “I refused to sign it, but they had taken away my belongings, including my phone and passport. They told me to pay them 16,000 yuan (S$3,030) if I wanted to leave.
“I didn’t have the money so they coerced me to work in a scam compound in Ton Pheung.”
He was there for two months before the criminals sent him to other scam compounds in Tachileik, Myanmar, by boat.
Both places are within the notorious Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone – an area that centres on north-east Myanmar and includes parts of Thailand and Laos.
The area has become a hotbed of transnational crime centred on human trafficking, drug production and illegal wildlife sales.
The United Nations (UN) said in a report published in August that hundreds of thousands of people are being forced by criminal gangs to work in scam and illegal gambling centres in South-east Asia.
In the fraud factories, Mr Kamugisha realised he had no choice but to work as a scammer if he wanted to survive.
He said: “I was beaten up with a baton if I refused to scam. They make your life a living hell.”
Ms Mina Chiang, founder of Humanity Research Consultancy (HRC), said she has seen cases where victims were beaten to death by criminals or had their fingers cut off.
“They make an example of them to scare others into submission,” she said.
HRC is a social enterprise based in Britain that provides research and training services to fight modern slavery.