Rescued Scam Workers Break Out of Immigration Center Amid ‘Nightmare’

4 min read
Photos taken from inside the Phnom Penh Quarantine Center by people who have been extracted from scam compounds around the country.

Under the cover of heavy rain last night, 10 rescued scam workers fled an immigration center in Phnom Penh, as a resident of another of the capital’s facilities spoke of bug bites and paying “tips” to police and said: “One nightmare ended, another began.”

Amid police raids that have removed thousands of people from scam compounds across the country, Phnom Penh’s Prek Pnov Covid-19 quarantine center has been turned into an immigration facility holding foreigners, including Chinese nationals as they await deportation.

On Wednesday around 8 or 9 p.m., 10 people kicked through the warehouse-like facility’s wall and fled in the rain, said immigration department spokesperson Keo Vanthan.

“This is a quarantine center and treatment hospital, and we’re using it to detain people so it is not solid,” he said. “We’ve welded steel, but they kicked that steel bar and the steel bar loosened, and they escaped during the heavy rain.”

Five of the 10 escapees had so far been recaptured, Vanthan said.

Several official and makeshift immigration facilities in the country were brimming with foreign nationals awaiting deportation, he said.

“We are in a campaign to crack down across the country, do you know that? So the municipality and all the provinces have to send [individuals] to the general department of immigration,” Vanthan said.

Existing spaces were too small, he said. “It’s not enough space to keep them since there are thousands of people.”

Vanthan added that immigration was asking the rescued scam workers for money so the department can buy plane tickets for them to fly home.

“They have to pay, so it is up to them. Whenever they have the money, we buy a plane ticket for them to leave. … Now we are in negotiations with the Chinese Embassy to reduce the plane ticket price to only $500,” he said, adding that China was expected to charter a special plane to take the detainees back. “You should not ask a lot of questions because I am busy.”

A commune police officer, who declined to be named, said authorities were searching hotels and guesthouses for the escapees, adding that he believed 25 others had also escaped the same center last month.

For a resident of another of Phnom Penh’s several immigration facilities, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution, his police rescue from a scam compound has only led to a dismal, prisoner-like existence.

He spoke to VOD reporters from inside the facility using a phone that was confiscated upon his arrival, which he said he later “bought back” for $100.

“I thought I had been rescued, but that doesn’t seem to be the case after arriving at the immigration detention center,” the man said. “The environment here is like a refugee camp.”

The man said he had worked on online scams in Sihanoukville against his will for about four months until he sought police help and was removed around a month ago. He said that in the scam compound he had faced being handcuffed for eight days and was once electrocuted with a baton.

He was brought out to a Phnom Penh facility, but people there were crammed in 12-15 per room and suffered from sickness, bug bites and little food. He said he didn’t know why he had even been taken there, as he had a passport and valid visa.

Preah Sihanouk authorities have previously said that foreigners who had passports would be released after police raids.

“Food and quality of life are very horrible here, there are no human rights to speak of. People who are sent here are treated like criminals, regardless of what country you come from. The police also regularly ask for tips,” the man said. “Everyone here is covered in bug bites, it’s very itchy… The police won’t give you any help.”

He provided a photo of a styrofoam packet of rice, with two thin slices of egg and a small piece of meat.

“This meal is one of the better ones, it has meat and eggs. Two meals a day,” he said, calling the situation a “living hell.”

“It’s really frustrating to be here. It’s worse than being in the compound,” he said. “One nightmare ended, another began.”

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