‘We Were Too Naive’: Chinese Teenagers Plead for Rescue From Sihanoukville

A street in Sihanoukville on January 21, 2021. (Tran Techseng/VOD)
A street in Sihanoukville on January 21, 2021. (Tran Techseng/VOD)
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Chinese nationals, as young as 15 years old, are being trafficked and forced to work in online gambling and scam companies in Sihanoukville, according to pleas for help sent to a group of Chinese volunteers that rescues victims of human trafficking in Cambodia.

Messages sent to the group by individuals trapped in debt bondage — from up to a dozen new victims each day — show despair among Chinese nationals forced to work in the coastal city.

The volunteer team, which assists Chinese nationals living in Cambodia, has been trying to free those who have fallen prey to human traffickers. But acting as private individuals, even with a burgeoning support network, they feel overwhelmed with the enormity of the task. Rescued victims as well as the team, which also does charitable work with Cambodians in the country and requested to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted, spoke of rampant trafficking, kidnapping, torture and sexual assault racking Sihanoukville. They are now hoping for stronger action from Cambodian authorities.

Authorities said they take action whenever they have enough information to act.

‘Relaxing Jobs’

Lured primarily by online posts or even old friends promising “well-paid, relaxing jobs,” most victims are trafficked from southern China overland through Vietnam or by sea to Cambodia.

Inexperienced and uninformed about life in a foreign country, young people have become easy prey for human traffickers looking to make quick money from online gambling and scam operations like those based in Sihanoukville and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. 

During an interview with reporters on Wednesday, a 15-year-old victim, who was trafficked to Cambodia by boat, said she was not even aware that she was being taken out of China until a few days into her eight-day voyage.

Reporters have seen messages from at least five underage victims out of more than a dozen reviewed, and two out of seven interviewed victims were 18 or younger. The volunteer team verifies the victims’ ages through their Chinese identity cards and family members.

“We had heard [of Cambodia] while scrolling on Douyin but didn’t know where it was,” wrote a 17-year-old victim in her request for help sent to the Chinese volunteer team, referring to the Chinese version of TikTok. She and her friend were trafficked to Cambodia by a man they met through an online gaming platform. They were rescued this past week by the Chinese volunteer team. “We were too naive,” she admitted.

Most victims have told the team that new arrivals are held captive in guarded compounds and forced to carry out online scams, usually by creating fake online profiles to entice people into fraudulent investment schemes.

A common operation is a romance scam known as the “pig-butchering scheme,” which baits unsuspecting internet users into online relationships, luring them into fraudulent schemes involving cryptocurrencies, stocks, and other types of investments or gambling. Scam victims are “butchered” after transferring large sums of money into the scam operator’s “special investment platforms” and often left to cope with massive debt. According to rescued victims, some schemes can defraud up to a few hundred thousand dollars per day.

Workers who refuse to perpetrate the scams or have unsatisfactory performance are beaten, handcuffed, sexually assaulted, forced to pay exorbitant ransom fees, or sold off to other scam companies for as much as $20,000, according to victims’ testimonies. Images sent to the Chinese volunteer team and seen by VOD show victims with cigarette burns, knife wounds, bruises and other injuries indicating physical abuse. Some victims have developed mental illnesses from these traumatic experiences and require extensive care and treatment after rescue, according to the Chinese volunteer team.

“When I asked to quit, I was severely beaten in a small, dark room with an electric baton,” wrote one trafficking victim who is still awaiting rescue. “They even threatened me by putting a knife to my neck. They said if I didn’t obey them they would throw my body into the ocean to feed the fish.”

Victims seeking help risk punishment from supervisors who monitor their phones.

‘They Don’t Trust Anyone Anymore’

Wang*, a member of the Chinese volunteer team, said that up to a dozen new Chinese victims reach out to him every day asking to be rescued. The team has built a reputation among Chinese nationals in Cambodia for helping victims of trafficking and forced labor. Many victims were trafficked into Cambodia without passports after responding to online job adverts. Some had lost their jobs in Cambodia due to the Covid-19 outbreak and were kidnapped while looking for new work. Others were sold to scam companies while waiting for an affordable return flight to China, as one-way tickets from Cambodia to China have skyrocketed to more than $9,000 in recent months.

Travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic have caused labor shortages for online scam companies, Wang observed. As a result, more Chinese workers have been entering Cambodia illegally, foreigners of other nationalities have also been targeted for enslavement, and kidnappings have become more frequent.

Though Cambodia officially banned online gambling in 2019 and local authorities have raided some online gambling and scam companies, corruption and poor law enforcement have allowed these companies to continue operating in Cambodia, said Transparency International Cambodia executive director Pech Pisey.

“This is a very concerning issue for our nation,” he said. “The government and authorities in the province need to take action effectively to prevent a crime wave.”

“Corruption acts as a tool for criminals to avoid law enforcement … and it has become normalized in Cambodia.”

Every day, Wang spends hours messaging with victims on WeChat or Telegram to provide assurance and to gain their trust. “They’ve been hurt so badly they don’t trust anyone anymore. Not even the people who are trying to help them,” Wang said.

After verifying each victim’s personal information, Wang shows them how to report their cases to the Chinese embassy in Phnom Penh and how to call local authorities for help — the embassy has no jurisdiction in the country.

Wang said only a small minority of cases reported to Sihanoukville authorities result in local police carrying out rescue operations. Though some victims have been rescued by police, many more who have reported their cases remain in detention. Wang and his team follow-up on the remaining cases, “but there is no action,” he said.

Kheang Phearum, spokesperson for the Sihanoukville provincial administration, said, “I would like to clarify that for all crimes, when authorities receive a complaint or report, they go down to intervene — in all types of cases.”

“We want to know clear cases and [you] should not generalize. Show us: which case?”

Preah Sihanouk provincial police chief Chuon Narin could not be reached for comment.

Wang noted that trafficking victims are sometimes hesitant to report their cases to the police because they are concerned about their companies’ connections with local authorities.

“My boss here has a very good relationship with the local police,” wrote one trafficking victim still awaiting rescue in his messages to the Chinese volunteer team. “I’m worried that if I can’t get out, I will be tortured again. I have nightmares every day.”

Desperate for solutions, the Chinese volunteer team recently started urging victims to send their rescue requests to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s and Preah Sihanouk governor Kuoch Chamroeun’s Facebook pages. 

One comment posted on November 5 read: “Dear Prime Minister Hun Sen, hello, I am a Chinese. I was tricked by others from China … Here they asked me to lie to others, but I was very resistant … I have been secretly seeking rescue for more than two months, but there is no news so far … I hope you can reach out and save me.”

In the past 10 days, Wang knows of at least six victims who were successfully rescued after making similar posts.

“We are still waiting to see how effective [this method] can be,” he said.

‘A Haven for Crime’

When asked about why he works with the Chinese volunteer team, Wang said he “[wants] to help improve the image of Sihanoukville in the minds of Chinese people.”

“To put it bluntly, Chinese people now see Sihanoukville as a haven for crime. A city of kidnappings. The Cambodian government says it wants to open up to tourists from China,” Wang added, “but with all the stories they hear about Sihanoukville now, Chinese people are afraid to come. How could they dare travel to Sihanoukville?”

The Chinese Embassy has not responded to questions about the underage cases or what actions it can take to help trafficking victims.

This year, the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh has issued several statements warning its citizens of “high-salary job recruitment traps.”

In the past year, Wang estimates his team has helped retrieve at least 180 Chinese victims from online gambling and scam operations across Cambodia.

For the online gambling and scam companies, the victims are “just a piece of flesh,” Wang said.

“Where they only see money, I see someone’s dignity that needs to be saved.” 

*Name has been changed to protect source

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