The job advertisements were too enticing to scroll past — marketing and administration roles at a lavish casino in Cambodia, with high salaries and paid accommodation.
For Nokyoong, a 26-year-old Thai single mother of three, and her cousin Neung, 40, it seemed like an incredible opportunity to make money for their family.
As soon as they saw the ads on Facebook they contacted the recruitment agent, speaking multiple times to find out the details before signing up.
But within a day of arriving in Cambodia’s casino capital Sihanoukville, their hopes were crushed.
They found themselves locked in a crowded compound, tricked into handing over their phones and passports, and working for a Chinese-run investment scam.
Over several months they tried to leave and raise the alarm. They say they were either tortured, threatened with torture, or forced to watch other people being tortured.
“I was so afraid I wouldn’t see my kids again,” Nokyoong told the ABC.
“I was afraid that I would be killed over there, I saw how they beat people.”
With Nokyoong’s three children, all aged under 10, back in Thailand with her aunty and relying on the money they had hoped to send home, the cousins were desperate to get out.
Little did they know, they were among thousands of vulnerable workers across South-East Asia lured by human traffickers into the murky web of online scams.
As soon as they got to their new workplace, Nokyoong and Neung (whose names the ABC has changed to protect their identities) knew something was amiss.
“When we arrived at a casino in Sihanoukville, Thai and Chinese people took us to a building and the door was locked,” Nokyoong said.
“The room was like a cage with iron bars, we couldn’t get out, it was like prison.”
A woman in a white long-sleeved top and man in a red T-shirt sit a a table, both shielding their faces from view
They say they were made to work in a call centre, using dating apps on mobile phones to meet people looking for love.
Once they had established online conversations, they were told to pass the people’s details on to a “chief” who would continue the chat and trick people into sending money for bogus investments.
Neung told the ABC they were expected to lure up to five unsuspecting investors every day.
“We felt so bad doing that, but we were locked up and force to cheat people,” he said.
Nokyoong and Neung, as well as others who were trapped, tried to contact Cambodian police and foreign embassies, but it was difficult to do without being caught.
“A Vietnamese man was caught asking for help from his embassy, and the [scam leaders] told everyone to watch and started hitting him until a bone popped out from his leg,” Nokyoong said.
A woman wearing a white long-sleeved top, whose hair covers her face, sits at a table looking at documents
After Neung was caught trying to contact Thai authorities, he says he was moved to a different compound and tortured there.
“I was struck with an electric baton and hit on the face,” he said.
“I thought I might not survive.”
Nokyoong feared for hers and her cousin’s life.
“They’re bad memories that I’ll never forget,” she said.
Children as young as 12 being tricked into labour scams
Jaruwat Jinmonca, the co-founder of anti-human trafficking organisation the Immanuel Foundation Thailand, says Nokyoong and Neung’s account is terrifyingly common.
He told the ABC that an estimated 3,000 Thai victims have been tricked into working for labour scams in South-East Asia this year, some as young as 12 years old.
“It is a big problem and numbers are increasing … more people have been lured into these scams because of the dire economic situation from COVID,” he said.
Mr Jaruwat says governments in South-East Asia, especially Myanmar and Cambodia, have not been taking the issue seriously.
“They don’t see that human trafficking is happening in their countries, and they look at call centre scams as a problem of a few Chinese [people] who rent a building and don’t create so much damage,” he said.
“When victims are rescued, the traffickers are not charged, they just move to new places.”
According to the US State Department’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia failed to meet the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, and were designated the lowest rating, tier 3.
When Chamanun received a LinkedIn message from an unknown man claiming to be an American doctor, it marked the beginning of a tangled web of lies.
Thailand was upgraded to tier 2 status with the report noting the country did “not fully meet the minimum standards … but [was] making significant efforts to do so”.
It noted a decrease in prosecutions and convictions compared with the previous year, difficulty identifying victims and gaps in services for victims were issues of concern.
The report credited Thailand with initiating investigations against corrupt officials and sentencing two to jail time, but said more work needed to be done.
“Corruption continues to undermine anti-trafficking efforts,” the report said.
“Some government officials are directly complicit in trafficking crimes, including through accepting bribes or loans.”
Deputy Secretary-General of the Prime Minister Police General Tamasak Wicharaya, who oversees the government’s anti-trafficking response, said the Thai government had laws in place to crack down on corrupt officials in this area.
“We cannot tolerate it. We apply penalties and legal action against them,” he told the ABC.
“This year we so far have around 25 individual officials being charged and [over a] seven-year period of time, we have [charged] more than 90.”
Escaping their scam prison was far from the end of the ordeal
By early July, six months after they were first lured into the scam, Nokyoong and Neung were finally able to leave.
In a joint Cambodian-Thai Police operation, the Sihanoukville call centres they worked in were raided and shut down and 74 Thai workers were detained.
Nokyoong says they were held in a Cambodian hotel provided by the Thai embassy for around a month while police investigated. They were then taken back over the border by bus.
“Thai police told me they would help me to be categorised as [a] witness and told me not to stress because they would help me,” Nokyoong said.
“But when I arrived back in Thailand, they put us in jail for three days and treated us like criminals.”
Neung says police explained that they needed to issue arrest warrants in order to get the Thai workers out of Cambodia.
“We felt relieved and did whatever they said,” he said.
They were given bail and hoped that would be the end of it, but almost a year on, their ordeal is far from over. ABC
- Tags: scam, vulnerable workers