Human-trafficking crisis: captive Hongkonger tells how trip to Thailand turned into 3-month nightmare under forced labour


Anecdotal evidence shows many scam victims were lured to Thailand with the promise of a well-paid job they saw advertised online. Lawyers and NGO staff have paid close attention since the crisis – possibly the worst to affect the safety of Hongkongers overseas for a decade – started to unfold. — SCMP

A week after the plight of Hongkongers trafficked and held captive in South-East Asia came to light, not much has changed for John, who is still stranded in Myanmar.

Escape is not an option for the 30-something, whose life took a dramatic turn for the worse when a trip to Thailand to catch up with an old friend turned into a nightmare.

ALSO READ: Hong Kong man ‘kidnapped’ by South-East Asia scam ring pleads for help

John said he was once locked up in a room for five days, at the mercy of his captors for food and drink.

But he said he never dared to try and escape after he watched a runaway being shot because he knew he could never outrun a bullet.

“I witnessed someone who tried to run away before, but to no avail. He was hit by a shot and I saw him being carried back inside,” John said in a recent recording released by Stop Trafficking of People (Stop), part of Branches of Hope, a Hong Kong charity.

Lawyers and non-governmental organisation staff have paid close attention since the crisis – possibly the worst to affect the safety of Hongkongers overseas for a decade – started to unfold.

Some of the victims ended up in Cambodia. Photo: Shutterstock

And the professionals warned they had started to see a pattern where crooks had targeted the young and educated.

Anecdotal evidence showed many victims were lured to Thailand with the promise of a well-paid job they saw advertised online.

But on arrival they were taken, against their will, to neighbouring countries where they were forced to work in phone scams and other criminal activities.

“The current trend that we can see is that the traffickers target young and educated Hong Kong people,” said Michelle Wong, the programme manager at Stop.

Wong said they all had things in common – they could speak English and Chinese and were computer literate, which were skills needed to work in the phone scamming business.

Patricia Ho Pui-chi, a University of Hong Kong principal law lecturer who has campaigned for years for human trafficking legislation in the city, suggested the Covid-19 pandemic might have made people drop their guard.

“There have been a lot of people losing jobs due to Covid and in this sort of situation, across the world, it makes people vulnerable and susceptible to deception,” she explained.

As of Thursday, authorities had received 41 requests for help from residents. Some 23 of those Hongkongers were already confirmed as safe, with 12 having returned home.

The remaining eighteen are being held captive in Cambodia and Myanmar.

The scammers post fake job adverts on social media. Photo: Shutterstock

The government has since set up a task force and WhatsApp hotline to aid victims, although Wong said the authorities could have prevented some of the cases by stepping up public warnings earlier because they learned of the problem at the start of the year.

The ordeal endured by John, who has been held captive for about three months, started with a slightly different story from the rest.

He was supposed to visit an old colleague in Mae Sot, on Thailand’s western border with Myanmar, after his friend started a job in the country, but he ended up being held at gunpoint and forced into an illegal border crossing to work for a shady enterprise.

John said captives were also required to work in casinos or operate online gambling websites at various premises, as well as run phone scams.

Another victim, Ah Dee, 30, told a more typical story. He was offered a job in advertising in Thailand with a HK$50,000 (US$6,000), salary after he applied for the post on Facebook from Hong Kong.

He also travelled to Mae Sot and was forced into a car by people with tasers and knives. He was told to pay a ransom of US$10,000 or work 12 hours a day on phone scams.

“I thought I was doing advertising ... I just tried all I could to figure out a way to leave. I can’t work for them. Scamming is illegal,” he said in a recording made by Stop.

The border crossing from Thailand’s Mae Sot into Myanmar. Photo: Andrew Chant

A member of the United States-based Global Anti-Scam Organisation, who uses the pseudonym Joy, told the Post there were multiple scamming centres involving tens of thousands of people in Myanmar near the Thai border.

KK Park has become the most notorious and the dominant site in headlines in the Chinese language media.

The area, with an estimated population of up to 8,000 people, is made up of dozens of buildings, a hospital, supermarkets, dormitories, hotels, a casino and executives’ homes, according to a map seen by the Post.

Joy said the criminals involved came from several countries, including Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and China. The victims included Hongkongers and people from Taiwan.

She explained the kingpins gave precise instructions on how to find targets on social media, win their trust, and get their bank account details.

Joy said victims could be subjected to punishments such as beatings, electric shocks or starvation if they could not make a minimum number of “friends” a day and that some became successful scammers and did not mind staying.

Ah Dee considered himself lucky because he was set free after his family paid a ransom, although John continues to wait for rescue.

But both complained about the bureaucracy they faced when they sought help from the authorities and Ah Dee said the Hong Kong police turned his family away when they asked for help.

Some of the victims remain in Myanmar. Photo: AP

Ho said such stories were a stark reminder of why the city needed legislation designed to stop human trafficking.

She explained a legal framework would provide the basis for police to open an investigation and offer help, despite the crime taking place overseas, and give officers the power to freeze assets of accomplices and bring them to book.

Ho said that prosecutors could exercise their discretion and offer immunity to victims who might have committed crimes under duress, but that a proper statutory safeguard was needed to encourage victims to report crimes.

She also appealed to the public to show some empathy for victims of traffickers.

“They are anyone. They can be you. They can be me. When they get into the situation, before they know it, they are too far away and they are trapped,” Ho said.

Full names of the victims have been withheld at their request to protect their identities for fear of retribution. – South China Morning Post

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