Cambodia, Myanmar ‘Cyber-slaves’ Are Being Recruited Globally, Research Finds

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Cambodia, Myanmar ‘Cyber-slaves’ Are Being Recruited Globally, Research Finds

The global scope of the cyber-scam operations based in the two Southeast Asian countries is only now starting to becoming clear.

Cambodia, Myanmar ‘Cyber-slaves’ Are Being Recruited Globally, Research Finds

A street scene in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, a city that has emerged as a human trafficking hotspot over the past few years.

Credit: Depositphotos

If a job offer in Cambodia or Myanmar sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Young, educated people from around the world are being tricked into relocating to Southeast Asia, where they find themselves locked in compounds and working round the clock as online scammers. Once on the treadmill, the only purpose of the scammers is to generate as much money as fast as possible.

Failure to hit profit targets, or any attempt to escape, lead to brutal punishments. The scams which they are forced to carry out are called “pig butchering,” the idea being to fatten up an online victim before devouring them. The financial victims of the online scams, which revolve around illusory promises of love and companionship, are global. Lonely hearts around the world have been tricked out of amounts of up to $1 million, and some have even sold their houses once they get sucked into a false mental universe.

There is a “need for greater public and government understanding” of the problem, said Mina Chiang, founder of the Humanity Research Consultancy (HRC) in Hove in the United Kingdom. Chiang, a Chinese-speaker from Taiwan, works with researchers on the ground in Cambodia and Myanmar.

The people who are tricked into cyber slavery are computer literate and can use social media with ease. Many may have university degrees and speak more than one language. The initial contact which offers them the possibility of lucrative work in Southeast Asia could come in a variety of forms: an in-person suggestion, an unsolicited text message, or an online ad.

There are warning signs for people being offered jobs in Cambodia or Myanmar, Chiang says. These are the promise of a high salary with no clear responsibilities, and promises of free flights and accommodation.

HRC in April published a report called “Guidance on Responding to Victims in Forced Scam Labour.” The report shows that cyber-slaves come from a much wider range of countries than previously realized. It’s unlikely that HRC or anyone else has yet been able to identify the full range of origin countries which have supplied the compounds with human raw material. The HRC list currently includes Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand, Uganda, the United States, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.

Most of the organizing criminals involved are Chinese, with some from Taiwan and Malaysia, and the majority of the enslaved victims are Chinese, Chiang said. There is a two-way movement in the operations between Cambodia and Myanmar. Some police in Cambodia have intervened in the compounds, causing the criminals who run them to relocate to Myanmar.

The civil war in Myanmar in the wake of the military junta’s coup in 2021, meanwhile, has prompted some operators to move in the opposite direction to Cambodia. Other places where cyber scammers operate on a smaller scale include Laos, the Philippines, Nepal, and Dubai. Overall, the scale of the problem continues to grow, Chiang says.

The growth has been accompanied by an increase in the proportion of non-Chinese cyber slaves. That’s because those running the compounds need English speakers to be able to scam the largest and most lucrative global targets, Chiang said.

The organizing criminals have usually left China because the country does at least have some kind of law enforcement, Chiang said. Cambodia and Myanmar provide “outlaw spaces” where the criminals can operate with “impunity,” she added. Police in both countries are often willing to take bribes to allow the compounds to operate, she said. But official corruption goes higher: in Myanmar, petty warlords and pro-regime militias are willing to let the compounds run, while in Cambodia, corruption runs to the highest levels of government, including the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Chiang said.

A Cambodian political source said that the country’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng, who has attempted to crack down on the problem, has privately acknowledged that it is beyond his power to do so. Hun Sen, as an ally of China, would be susceptible to Chinese pressure to put a stop to the racket. Part of the problem is that China views people who have crossed the border illegally to go and work in Southeast Asia as criminals by definition, Chiang said. That failure to treat the scammers as the victims of human trafficking extends to other governments, she argued. “Forced criminality is a type of modern slavery,” she said.

Foreign embassies need to do more to secure the release of their nationals, according to the HRC research. Victims, their families, and NGOs often fail to get any response if they contact police and authorities in Cambodia and Myanmar themselves. Embassy interventions have a much higher success rate in getting people out. Banks also need to do more to spot unusual patterns of rapidly increasing payments which are often converted into cryptocurrencies, Chiang says. HRC works with banks to help them spot the warning signs.

The easiest path for foreign governments is to simply treat the problem as a piece of bad luck that can befall its citizens on a trip to the region. But in fact, local human traffickers are invariably needed in the origin countries to find and dispatch the future scammers, Chiang said. So foreign governments have a clear course of action open to them in prosecuting domestic trafficking networks. These networks, Chiang said, are the “low-hanging fruit” that there should be every incentive to tackle.