Nineteen Japanese men detained in Cambodia in January on suspicion of participating in phone and online scams were deported to their homeland on Tuesday, police said.
The group boarded a chartered flight organized by the Japanese government at Phnom Penh International Airport, Cambodian National Police spokesperson Gen. Chhay Kim Khouen said.
Immigration Police, part of the Interior Ministry, said in a statement that the men were deported because they violated immigration law by living and working in Cambodia illegally. They will not be allowed to reenter the country for three years, it said.
Tokyo police have obtained arrest warrants for the 19 Japanese on suspicion of running phone scams from Cambodia targeting people in Japan, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported on Friday.
NHK said Cambodian authorities searched the men’s hotel rooms and “discovered a list of Japanese citizens believed to be targets in a fraud scheme.”
The 19 were taken into custody in the southern city of Sihanoukville on January 24 and sent to the capital, Phnom Penh, where they were held after being investigated by the Interior Ministry.
A Cambodian official at Phnom Penh International Airport who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media said the men were taking a chartered Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur, where they would transfer to a waiting Japanese plane.
He said a group of Japanese policemen had arrived to escort the 19 men home.
At Phnom Penh’s airport, several vehicles a convoy with heavy protection from Cambodian and Japanese policemen drove rapidly directly to the waiting plane on the tarmac.
Police in Sihanoukville, which in the past few years has become notorious for crime such as online and phone scams, said in January that they opened the case after being informed on a crime-fighting hotline that about 20 Japanese men were being held there and extorted for money.
They found a group of 19 Japanese men staying in a hotel in Sihanoukville, but the men denied that they were being held against their will or extorted. They said they were visiting Cambodia and had been seeking work but were not involved in any crimes or wrongdoing.
Sihanoukville police, however, sent them to Phnom Penh for further investigation.
Cybercrime scams became a major issue in Cambodia last year, when there were numerous reports of people from various Asian countries and further afield being lured into taking jobs in Cambodia. However, they often found themselves trapped in virtual slavery and forced to participate in scams targeting people over the internet.
The scam networks, which often have links to transnational organized crime, are set up in countries with weak law enforcement and attract educated young workers with promises of high earnings. The workers are then subject to isolation and the threat of violence unless they succeed in cheating victims reached by phone into transferring payments into overseas bank accounts.
Such activities appear to have declined recently in Sihanoukville but persist in other places, including in Myanmar near the border with Thailand. In many cases, these operations are controlled by Chinese organized crime groups.