The United Nations has cast a harsh spotlight on the cyber trafficking industry that has blossomed in Southeast Asia in recent years, estimating that the trade has ensnared some 100,000 victims in Cambodia alone.
In a sweeping new report on online scam operations in the region, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights seeks to frame the online trafficking networks as an urgent international human rights threat that demands the attention of both national governments and global advocacy groups.
It argues that because persons trafficked into the operations effectively carry out the crimes — using the internet and social media as tools to help orchestrate various scams to take money from unwitting victims in other countries — they are often treated as complicit in their new and home countries. Yet the report urges officials to treat them as victims too.
“People who have been trafficked into online forced criminality face threats to their right to life, liberty and security of the person,” the U.N. report says. “They are subject to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, forced labour and other forms of labour exploitation as well as a range of other human rights violations and abuses.”
Prime Minister Hun Manet's government has quickly gone on the defensive against the report, playing down the scale of the problem. Both the report and experts on the issue say Cambodia has yet to show the necessary resolve to root out and shut down the trafficking networks.
One reason for that, according to the report, is that officials and other powerbrokers in Cambodia may be sharing in the significant profits. It estimates that scam centers operating in Southeast Asia generate billions of US dollars in revenue.
“Corruption undermines accountability and threatens the rule of law; it often precedes the human rights violation, exacerbates its effects, and is a barrier to access to justice and remedy,” says the report, which also focused on trafficking in Myanmar and Laos and functioning scam centers in those countries.
“Reports indicate that there has been a lack of investigation into claims of collusion between the criminal actors behind these scam operations and senior government officials, politicians, local law enforcement and influential businesspersons.”
Al Jazeera, which conducted a groundbreaking investigation on Cambodia’s “cyber slaves'' in 2022, found that some of the wealthy businessmen who own the compounds where scam rings operate had close relationships with former Prime Minister Hun Sen, who handed power to his son after July’s election.
The report describes how the COVID-19 pandemic fueled the growth of the industry in Southeast Asia. Many young professionals across the region were desperate for work — becoming prime targets for online recruiters promising fake jobs — while people across the world were bored and spending hours connected to the internet on their phones, computers or other devices.
The pandemic also forced casinos across Asia to close, sending Chinese investors looking for new, and often illicit, business opportunities online and in places with limited regulation and legal risk, like Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, the report explains.
“Faced with new operational realities, criminal gangs increasingly targeted migrant workers, who were stranded in these countries and were out of work due to border and business closures, to work in the scam centers,” it says.
Cambodia’s Interior Ministry announced an aggressive campaign to confront the cyber scams in August 2022.
Chou Bun Eng, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and vice chair of the National Committee for Combating Human Trafficking, told VOA Khmer in September that authorities had since responded to more than a thousand requests for intervention and rescued more than 1,500 people.
She dismissed the report’s claim that “credible estimates” have “indicated at least 100,000 people forcibly involved in online scams” in Cambodia.
“We already know that Cambodia is not big, and for businesses and locations in the provinces, there are not many,” she said in an interview. “We ask, where are those people?”
Chou Bun Eng added that the government was convening experts to come up with a more accurate estimate and would send a report back to the United Nations.
The issue of cyber trafficking was raised during a meeting between new Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and Hun Manet in Phnom Penh last week. A social media post from Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the leaders discussed a range of security issues, including joint efforts to “crack down online scams.”
Jason Tower, the Burma country director for the United States Institute of Peace, which monitors cyber trafficking across the region, said he was somewhat skeptical that 100,000 people had been trafficked into forced labor in Cambodia’s scam networks. But he said that figure may capture the total number of people involved in the industry in some capacity over a period of years.
Still, he said the Cambodian government’s “pretty strong pushback” to the report was “unfortunate,” both for advocates and for other countries in Asia who want greater protections for their citizens in Cambodia, and more commitment to freeing those trapped by traffickers.
“My understanding is there's still a lot of victims and that law enforcement in neighboring countries is still putting pressure on the Cambodian authorities about very specific victims that they're trying to recover and that there's a lot of foot dragging and that things just are not happening anywhere near quickly enough,” Tower told VOA Khmer.
“So you know, the problems certainly have not gone away, and I think that a lot more could be done to send out a very strong message that simply there's no tolerance for this in the country, and I don't think we're anywhere near there yet.”
The U.N. report says that as of July 2023, online scam centers were reportedly operating in at least eight Cambodian provinces: Phnom Penh, Kandal, Pursat, Koh Kong, Bavet, Preah Sihanouk, Oddar Meanchey and Svay Rieng.
It also specifically named two special economic zones believed to be hosting cyber scam facilities, the Dara Sakor SEZ and Henge Thmorda SEZ. Dara Sakor’s primary developer is the Chinese-owned Union Development Group. Henge Thmorda appears to refer to the MDS Thmor Da SEZ, which has previously been linked to human trafficking and is owned by Cambodian tycoon Try Pheap.
Jacob Sims, the regional director for the International Justice Mission in the Asia Pacific, said the organization has seen “commendable” improvements from the Cambodian government in its response to cyber trafficking.
Among the signs of progress is opening a hotline to help victims seek help, and making greater efforts to identify victims, he said. And large cyber slavery compounds in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh have been shut down, to some extent.
“However, there is also significant evidence that many of these compounds simply relocated to new areas within Cambodia,” Jacob Sims said.
“At a high level, accountability for compound owners and crime bosses is key. One compound may close, but another will likely open in its place as long as the risk to operating and facilitating this criminal industry remains low.”
Sims said he thought the 100,000 figure “seems imminently plausible,” given public reports, witness testimonies, the size of the broader online gambling industry.
Tower noted there’s also a growing financial pressure on Cambodia to address the problem. China has ramped up its efforts to warn citizens about the risks of being trafficking in Southeast Asia, leading to travel advisories and even a blockbuster movie about Chinese nationals lured into a scam compound through the promise of high-paying jobs.
“So part of the strategy is to just terrify Chinese people, you know, such that nobody wants to go to Southeast Asia,” Sims said.
This has posed a significant threat to Cambodia’s tourism industry, which is focused largely on Chinese visitors and has yet to fully recover from the global pandemic.
Western countries are also paying more attention to the problem, with countries like the U.S. losing billions annually to online scams — as well as having nationals recruited into the cybercrime syndicates, said Tower.
Both Sims and Tower were hopeful that the U.N. report would bring greater attention and resources to combating the trafficking rings.
“I think that adding the human rights lens will probably get a lot more Western actors to look at these issues,” Tower said. “And it will add, I think, another layer to the response.”
Sim Chansamnang in Phnom Penh contributed reporting