Sirens blared around 12:25 p.m. as three city buses escorted by armed police inched out of central Phnom Penh’s leafy St. 310.
Officers had spent the morning stationed at a high-rise apartment building on the street, blocking traffic on both Monivong Blvd. and St. 63. Police endlessly waved off arriving motorbikes and cars as delivery drivers accumulated at the roadblocks, phoning their customers to come out to pick up their food orders.
Within the police cordon, curious workers from the next-door Wownow delivery service office building smoked cigarettes and looked on amid a swarm of officers carrying electric shock batons. At least six marked police trucks were parked on the street.
The police officers could be overheard speaking on their walkie-talkies and to onlookers that this was the third batch of foreign residents being removed from the apartment block this week, and on previous days there had been scuffles. Some wondered what need there was spending so much time arresting “konchao,” a word that literally translates to children but refers to subordinate staff and is commonly used in Khmer translation of Chinese gangster movies.
This time, the foreign residents would be sent straight to the airport and onto a flight to China, the officers could be heard saying.
The police raid in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang I commune came amid focused police action against human trafficking over the past several weeks. Authorities have raided more than 10 compounds in each of Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, and thousands of foreign workers have been removed from scam syndicates, many slated for deportation depending on their documentation status. Hundreds of cases have been officially declared to be human trafficking, also involving forced detentions and torture.
For more than a year, foreign workers have been lured to Cambodia and trapped in criminal operations — which officials have said revolve around gambling, but workers say are massive global romance and cryptocurrency scams being run from local compounds.
Thursday’s raid appeared to be a continuation of the recent police action, though immigration spokesman Keo Vanthan said he was busy and declined to comment Thursday afternoon. Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng referred questions to the “national level.”
Commune and district police also directed specific questions to the immigration department, but acknowledged a weeklong raid in Boeng Keng Kang I.
“Immigration handled the Chinese, and now it has finished. Immigration came to work on the case, and I don’t know the case clearly,” said commune police chief Kol Sophat.
District governor Sok Sambath, meanwhile, said the road was only blocked for five minutes — though reporters saw it closed for the nearly three hours they were there.
A nearby vendor said she had seen metal bunk beds brought into the apartment block in recent months, and thought it might be turning into a medical facility.
The convoy that left St. 310 was led by a black police van, followed by a city bus filled only with luggage, then two buses of passengers. Behind them was an ambulance — police could earlier be heard speaking of four Covid-positive residents — and finally two open police trucks carrying eight officers armed with assault rifles.
The convoy ran through red lights up St. 63, west on Sihanouk Blvd., southwest on Monireth Blvd., up St. 217 and west again on St. 2004, finally stopping for about an hour outside an immigration detention center across the street from the airport. The ambulance entered the center, while the others waited outside except for some quick toilet breaks. The armed officers took up positions on the sidewalk by the buses, while about a dozen immigration police officers photographed the operation and themselves.
The two buses carrying passengers then moved to the Phnom Penh airport’s public departures terminal around 1:30 p.m. About 50-80 foreign nationals escorted by police walked in through the glass doors of the terminal’s front entrance.