How southeast Asia’s ‘scamdemic’ is reshaping the face of human trafficking

A Taiwanese human trafficking victims from Cambodia, standing on a street in Taipei, Taiwan, after escaping his captors
Men and boys in the region are at increasing risk from traffickers operating brutal online scamming compounds - I-HWA CHENG

A traumatised teenager trekking through the forest to safety after five months in “violent captivity”. A 23-year-old who fled modern slavery in Cambodia, making it home just in time for his brother’s wedding. A 30-year-old who was “badly tortured”, but escaped Myanmar before his captors removed one of his kidneys.

Before the pandemic hit, it was fairly rare for Vietnamese men like these to find themselves entangled in human trafficking.

But as southeast Asia’s “scamdemic” proliferates, men and boys are increasingly being targeted at home and abroad, according to a major report from the anti-trafficking organisation Blue Dragon. Many are held by criminal syndicates operating brutal internet troll farms in the Philippines, Cambodia and Myanmar where they are forced to scam others from around the world.

Based in Vietnam, the NGO helps hundreds of people escape exploitation each year. Their new analysis of more than 1,100 victims, shared exclusively with the Telegraph, offers a unique glimpse into the dramatic shifts in trafficking trends in Vietnam and across the region since 2018.

Before the pandemic, more than 90 per cent of rescue missions were related to sexual-exploitation in China. Women and girls were regularly sold across the porous 800-mile-long border, where they were trapped in brothels or forced marriages.

But then China built a long border fence, the pandemic devastated Vietnam’s economy and scam centres emerged. By 2022, 40 per cent of people Blue Dragon assisted at home and abroad were men and boys, while the proportion of victims exploited for labour surged four-fold to 39 per cent.

“The scam centres came out of the blue, nobody really expected it, and they’ve completely changed the landscape and the response,” said Dr Caitlin Wyndham, head of research and learning at Blue Dragon.

“It’s not that women are no longer being trafficked, it’s just that the number of men has surged as labour exploitation has increased,” she added. “Overall, there’s just been this really massive increase in human trafficking, and it’s driven by these scam centres.”

The United Nations estimates that hundreds of thousands of people are trapped inside the compounds, forced to operate online scams which are generating billions of dollars for criminal syndicates.

While the centres are multiplying across southeast Asia – just last week, hundreds of people were rescued from a “love scam” complex in the Philippines – Cambodia and Myanmar have emerged as hotspots.

Blue Dragon operated its first rescue mission in Cambodia in 2021 – a year later, a quarter of victims had been held in scam compounds in the country. Meanwhile the number of women held in violent exploitation in Myanmar rose from less than three per cent of people assisted, to 13 per cent since 2020.

Most people are lured in through the promise of well-paid jobs – including Kiet (pictured above, with his mother, whose name has been changed).

The Vietnamese 30-year-old spent more than a year in a casino-turned-scam-centre in Myanmar, after applying for a well paid job that required basic computing skills. But the role didn’t exist. Instead he ended up as a “dog-pusher” – the term used to describe those trapped operating love scams, crypto fraud, money laundering, and illegal gambling operations.

Things went from bad to worse after his first attempt to escape failed. Not only did his captors beat and torture him, but they threatened to harvest and sell his kidneys on the black market as punishment – a trend that is being increasingly reported.

“He was actually on the operating table and opened up, but halfway through the procedure they changed their mind – presumably because his kidney wasn’t in good enough condition – and closed him up,” said Blue Dragon’s Carlota Torres Lliró.

Afterwards his captors, demanding ransom instead, allowed him to call his family. It was at this point that plans for a rescue were set in motion. His relatives contacted Blue Dragon, who helped plan his release in a secretive operation. When he finally got back to Vietnam earlier this month, his body still bore scars from his torture and aborted operation.

‘There’s still a huge demand for women’

“These scam compounds are quite different to other forms of trafficking that we have seen before… and there’s a lot more brutality involved,” said Dr Wyndham.

She added that their rise is “linked to the economic aftershocks of the pandemic and inflation” – according to the International Labour Organization, 32 million Vietnamese people lost jobs, working hours or income streams due to the pandemic.

“Covid depleted everyone’s savings here in Vietnam, and the pandemic has been followed by a downturn in work opportunities,” she said. “That has really increased vulnerability to trafficking… people are taking bigger risks to migrate further from home to find work.”

But the jump in male victims does not mean that fewer women are being exploited; they still make up more than 60 per cent of domestic and international trafficking victims. Many are also ending up in the scam centres, where sexual violence is rampant, or are sold into prostitution.

Mai, a 14-year-old who’s name has been changed, is now back in Vietnam with her grandmother (both pictured above). She was one of seven women and girls extracted from a brothel in an active war zone in Myanmar, in a complicated rescue mission earlier this year.

“We don’t know much about how Mai ended up in the brothel… [but] upon arrival at the brothel, the owner forced each of the girls to sign a ‘work contract’ stating that they owed $25,000 as costs for travel and paperwork from Vietnam to Myanmar,” said Ms Torres Lliró.

She added that the victims were told they would pay off the ‘debt’ through sex work. Anyone who refused was beaten severely, some were even threatened with death.

“There’s still a lot of sexual exploitation, but there’s more diversity to this exploitation,” said Dr Wyndham. “Forced marriages in China are still happening because there’s a huge demand for women, a legacy of the One Child policy, but it’s happening less. Lots of what we’re seeing instead is linked to the scam compounds.”

Blue Dragon has seen some glimmers of hope. Awareness campaigns launched by NGOs, the government and police in Vietnam are gaining momentum and seem to be cutting through. Foreign embassies in countries including Cambodia and Thailand have also issued warnings to their citizens.

“We’ve been doing a lot of large-scale prevention and awareness-raising work… [and] the police have been running workshops in at-risk locations,” said Ms Torres Lliró. “They’ve even live-streamed court cases of forced scamming for members of the judiciary to learn about the issue.

“We think this can curb the trend and result in fewer people falling for the tricks the traffickers use, although it’s still early to see big impacts,” she said.

But overall there are few signs that these compounds, which are estimated to have made $75 billion through the scams they operate, according to estimates from the University of Texas, are going away.

“Given the complexity of this problem, and the difficulty addressing it, I think that the scam centres are going to continue to expand,” said Dr Wyndham. “They’re already expanding to the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and into the Middle East.

“I think they’re probably going to start popping up everywhere – it’s going to get much worse before it gets better.”

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