Sid thought his nightmare was finally over when, in early September, Cambodian police showed up at the compound where he’d been held captive and forced to work since May. Several officers showed the company that recruited him a complaint letter they had received, asked him and a few others to pack up, and led them out.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he set foot outside the high walls that surrounded the complex, lined with barbed wire and CCTV cameras to prevent escapes. For the first time in three months, he no longer feared for his life, free from the gang that controlled his every move and forced him into running romance and cryptocurrency scams.
“I was so happy when they came to the rescue. I thought I was redeemed,” Sid told VICE World News. But his relief didn’t last long.
Sid was duped and held against his will for months by the scam group under threat of violence. But instead of treating him as a victim and allowing him to go free or leave the country, Cambodian authorities have put him in an overcrowded cell with two dozen other men, he said, while officers try to extract money from them. Still in custody, he spoke to VICE World News from a detention facility using a secret spare phone.
This article uses pseudonyms for all current detainees and withheld their location to prevent retaliation by authorities.
“Now I feel that we were not rescued. We were arrested. We are here like criminals,” he said.
Sid said officers in the facility have confiscated his main phone and demanded $400 for its return. They asked for $300 to provide a bed and another $100 for a fan during his stay. Unable to pay, Sid said he and other detainees are sleeping on the floor surrounded by trash in the stifling heat. VICE World News has seen photos and videos showing these conditions but are unable to independently confirm the dates and place they were taken.
“We are in very bad condition, both mentally and physically,” Sid said. “We don’t know when they will release us and how long we can survive here.”
Like many trafficking victims lured into Cambodia’s illicit scam industry by false promises of lucrative work, Sid arrived for what he thought was a legitimate job as a computer operator, but was instead forced to meet people on dating apps and coax them into cryptocurrency investment. His situation is similar to thousands of workers used by criminal syndicates in industrial-scale scam operations that have proliferated in Cambodia since the start of the pandemic, from which people around the world are swindled out of millions of dollars in online fraud schemes.
Workers face beatings if they don’t comply and are asked to pay hefty ransoms, sometimes in the name of “recruitment fees,” to free themselves. Others, like Sid, have managed to break free after friends and family petitioned authorities on their behalf.
Hundreds of trafficking victims have returned home in recent months with assistance from volunteers and foreign governments, as the industry has come under mounting international scrutiny. But a growing number of workers, including Sid, now find themselves in another nightmare: trapped, extorted, and enduring abysmal conditions at the hands of the very authorities who claim to have rescued them.
VICE World News spoke with five people currently held in Cambodian detention centers, as well as groups attempting to assist them, and heard that many are being instructed to pay nebulous “fees” that stretch into the thousands of dollars in order to buy food, receive bedding, access their phone, and secure their own release.
This apparent extortion by local authorities is an example of the corruption that has hindered efforts to tackle the industry, said Sammy Chen, an adviser with the anti-human trafficking division of the Global Anti-Scam Organization (GASO). The volunteer-run group has been coordinating rescue operations for trafficking victims and workers wishing to escape these scam compounds since last June.
“The government departments are supposed to help maintain the law and order, and aid victims. Instead, they find excuses to extract bribes in every single step,” Chen told VICE World News. “Detainees have to pay $5 in tips for every meal, $500 to retrieve their phones, and $2,500 in order to leave.”
While, by Cambodian law, people with expired visas have to pay a fine of $10 per day of overstay, some officers have hiked up the penalty by 50 percent, Chen added.
One video, allegedly filmed from inside a detention facility and provided to VICE World News, showed an officer demanding and receiving riel banknotes for passing food delivery to detainees. Photos and footage allegedly of several government-run detention centers in Cambodia also showed the poor conditions inside, with about a dozen men crammed into small rooms, most lying on the floor, shoulder-to-shoulder.
VICE World News also saw text conversations with an alleged officer from Cambodia’s immigration department negotiating the price of what the messages refer to as “bail,” ranging from $1,000 to $3,000. Another screenshot of messages in English showed an alleged officer asking for an additional $100 in “donation” to facilitate the process. VICE World News could not independently verify the veracity of the screenshots.
Sid said some in his cell have been allowed to leave after forking out a large sum of money. People of different nationalities were charged different prices, he said, with Chinese detainees being asked for up to $2,500.
He’s personally not been asked to pay, but he also hasn’t been told why he is detained and when he can leave. Though he has tried to approach officers that stood guard outside the cell, he has been ignored.
“We said we don’t have money. Maybe that’s why they didn’t ask us [for bail money],” Sid said.
Media reports published in recent months, including a July investigation by VICE World News, have exposed the shocking scale of the scam industry that has taken hold in Cambodia, as well as pockets of Laos and Myanmar. Victims on both ends of the scam—people trafficked to work in the industry and those they scam of their money abroad—stretch into the thousands.
GASO alone represents nearly 2,000 people in 46 countries that have fallen victim to this type of online fraud, on average losing about $169,000 each. The total number of victims around the world is much higher and many go unreported, as victims fear being stigmatized. In July, VICE World News spoke to a U.S. victim, a terminally ill cancer patient, who lost $2.5 million over two months. Another victim lost over $1 million in a similar timeframe.
Underpinning the industry are trafficked people, estimated at tens of thousands, who are trapped in what a UN independent expert described as a “living hell.” Sok Phal, a top official from the interior ministry, last week put the number of foreign workers recruited into what he called “illegal gambling,” a euphemism for the scam industry, as high as 100,000.
Workers often arrive through airports, but there is an established trend of people trafficking overland and by sea. In late September, a wooden boat smuggling dozens of Chinese sank off the coast of Sihanoukville, a resort town that has become a center for scam operations. 11 died, with bodies washing up on a nearby Vietnamese island. Survivors said they didn’t know they were being taken to Cambodia.
Inside the compounds, a stream of leaked videos show the abuse that goes on, including workers chained to beds, tased and beaten by their captors. To escape, some have risked death and leapt from balconies. Reports of these abuses have earned Cambodia a reputation as a hotbed of unchecked criminality. Facing growing calls for action from countries across the region, and after the U.S. placed Cambodia on its human trafficking blacklist in July, Cambodian authorities have begun cracking down on criminal compounds that house these operations and rounding up foreign workers held inside.
After downplaying the issue for months, Cambodian authorities acknowledged in August that a large number of foreigners have been deceived by criminal gangs and illegally entered the country, where they became victims of human trafficking.
“They were trafficked or transferred from one group to another, without the consent of the parties, and in some cases, they faced violence and other threats if they did not follow the orders of the criminals,” the interior ministry said in a statement.
Speaking at a forum last week, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged to take action. “Do not let Cambodia become a haven of crime, a place of money laundering, a place of human trafficking,” he said.
As part of continuing raids, Cambodian authorities stormed eight buildings in a complex in Sihanoukville last month, where they identified crimes such as illegal online gambling, human trafficking, and prostitution. They also detained 469 foreigners, which included Chinese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese people. Nearly half did not have work permits and were fined 118 million Cambodian riel (about $28,000) in total. Additional raids have been conducted in the capital Phnom Penh, as reported last week by outlet VOD.
In an email reply to VICE World News, Keo Vannthan, a spokesman for Cambodia’s General Department of Immigration, said as of Oct. 3, the department has detained 920 people from 19 nations as part of the crackdown on the industry. He denied they are victims of human trafficking and said they broke immigration laws.
The detainees in immigration centers “crossed the border illegally, had no travel documents, overstayed and misused their Cambodian visa, which violates the Immigration law,” Vannthan said. He added that a small number of detainees had valid travel and work documents, but had given false statements about being detained or tortured.
Vannthan said that their detention will last until they are deported out of Cambodia, either through their embassy or by paying for their own travel home, while flight tickets or means of travel should be arranged by the detainees, their families or their embassies.
Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman at Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
As the clampdown intensifies, some operations have started relocating. Last month, on a visit to Kaibo—an enclave also known as Chinatown on the outskirts of Sihanoukville—VICE World News found recently emptied high-rises after scam groups relocated in the wake of police raids across the city. The buildings reportedly housed thousands of workers, whose whereabouts are now unknown.
Ah Nan was one of the workers in the vast, Chinese-run complex until recently. The Southeast Asian was smuggled to Cambodia last year after interviewing for a job as a livestreamer. Instead, upon his arrival, he was forced into defrauding people online.
He said his bosses dished out punishment in front of all the workers to those who attempted to run or contact the police. “Someone had his fingers chopped off. Others were beaten ’til they were crippled. They want the whole company to know we cannot touch the red line,” said Ah Nan, now speaking to VICE World News secretly from a detention facility under Cambodia’s immigration department.
He said he was rescued in August, when the crime syndicate began transferring workers to Myanmar to evade authorities and Cambodian police, acting on a tip from GASO, intercepted the vehicle he was in. At the police station, however, he said he was urged not to mention that he’d been trafficked or mistreated by the company in his witness statement. Instead, he was instructed to say he simply wanted to quit the company and thank the Cambodian police for their help. Otherwise, he claimed, he was told he would not be allowed to return home.
VICE World News could not independently verify these claims.
After being detained for four days at the station, he was sent to a detention center, where he remains now. He was told it would take one to two months to arrange for his deportation. In the meantime, he said he paid $500 in order to retrieve his two confiscated phones, and an extra $5 in tips for every food delivery and pack of cigarettes. All in all, he claims he has already spent around $3,000—most of his savings. His room is so overcrowded that the men must sleep upright or take turns lying down, he said.
While representatives of his embassy visited during his stay and offered him soda and snacks, Ah Nan said the gifts were immediately taken by the Cambodian officers after they left. Now, the relief he felt at being intercepted by police that afternoon has worn off, and he is desperate to return home.
“I just want to go home as soon as possible. I have no money left.”
Mina Chiang, founder and director of the London-based Humanity Research Consultancy, said many of the detainees have passports and valid visas and are being held without being given an explanation. The anti-trafficking group has received requests for help from at least 30 trafficking victims from Taiwan, who are being held by Cambodian authorities under murky circumstances.
“Nowadays, we have many victims who find it impossible for them to leave the country,” Chiang said. “They are being detained against their will under terrible conditions. Police officers are directly asking for bribes to help get them out.”
Pisey Pech, the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, told VICE World News that the criminal syndicates running cybercrime operations in the country are colluding with powerful elites.
“It’s common for law enforcement officials or public service providers to demand bribes,” he said. The group’s Corruption Perceptions Index consistently ranks Cambodia the worst in Southeast Asia, with the police, judiciary, and public sectors the most corrupt institutions.
“Corruption has been used by criminal gangs as an effective means to facilitate business deals and evade justice.”
Xiao Yu, speaking to VICE World News from a detention center in Cambodia, is also waiting without a clue as to when he will be able to leave.
He was cajoled to a scam compound in December. In May, he read in the news that Taiwanese authorities had arrested his recruiter, who is allegedly a core member of a trafficking ring that smuggled dozens to Cambodia. But he remained trapped.
“I kept wanting to leave, but I couldn’t find a way,” he said. A failed attempt to escape resulted in a severe beating.
“I was left with a nasty gash on my forehead that bled throughout the night. It hurt to even eat,” Xiao Yu said. “I just felt lucky I didn’t die.”
“They are refusing to let people go, as they can still get money out of them… In a way, it is no different from the scam compounds, only the detainees will not end up dead.”
Finally rescued by Cambodia police, he was sent to a detention facility under the immigration department. He has been held for weeks now, even though he has a passport and valid visa, he said.
He is confined to a small room packed with about 30 other people, he added. “All our phones are confiscated,” said Xiao Yu. “The next day, officers told us we could have them back for $300.”
Most detainees have little money on them and were pressed by officers to contact their families and have them send money over. The few who had cash were offered to be transferred to a room with air conditioning for $300 to $500, and charged $10 in tips for each food delivery, Xiao Yu claimed. “Officers sucked them dry,” he said.
Wang, a fourth detainee speaking to VICE World News from a detention center, was offered a way to hasten his release. Freed by Cambodian police from a compound, he said he has been held for a few weeks.
“I was asked to pay money: $2,500 for documents that would be delivered to a four-star general and need his signature,” said Wang. Officers did not specify what the documents were. “They implied that it is a fee that would make things go more smoothly.”
Wang said one detainee was released last week, after arranging a payment of $2,500. Unable to afford the sum, he feels as though he is being “left at the detention facility to rot.”
A fifth detainee, a Southeast Asian held in an immigration center for over a month, has paid a fee to obtain his phone. He said detainees were also asked to pay “tips” in order to buy food and cigarettes.
On allegations of bribery, Keo Vannthan of Cambodia’s immigration department said the authorities would investigate if evidence is presented and take appropriate action. He also noted that officers were correct to temporarily confiscate detainees’ phones until their deportation, but it is illegal for officers to demand money for their return before then. Vannthan confirmed that immigration officers should provide food and bedding “without any charges.”
Chen from GASO said the alleged visa violations gave Cambodian authorities a convenient excuse to hold people indefinitely, while they extort money from detainees that are desperate to leave. Many Chinese victims were willing to pay hefty sums to avoid being deported back and be subject to investigation by the country’s authorities.
Those who can’t pay have no choice but to wait.
“In a way, it is no different from the scam compounds,” Chen said, “only the detainees will not end up dead.”