Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Cambodian Police Contradict Indonesian Officials, Claim Repatriated Indonesians Are Not Victims

41 Indonesian citizens were repatriated to Indonesia from Cambodia in the last month, pictured here in a Cambodian Immigration Police office. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia)
41 Indonesian citizens were repatriated to Indonesia from Cambodia in the last month, pictured here in a Cambodian Immigration Police office. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia)

The Indonesian Embassy in Phnom Penh repatriated 41 Indonesian citizens in the last month from online scam operations, it announced Monday, but Cambodian police officials say that these people were not victims. 

The Indonesian Embassy told CamboJA that Cambodian National Police rescued the victims from one location in Banteay Meanchey’s Poipet city, four locations in Svay Rieng province’s Bavet city and two locations in Phnom Penh between June 5 and June 14. 

The victims included a group of Indonesian workers located in the city of Bavet who recorded a video asking for help from President Joko Widodo, published by Indonesian outlet Detik News. The man speaking in the video said the group felt cheated – they were misled to believe they would be working at a call center but once they arrived in Cambodia they were instead forced to work as scammers.

The Indonesian Embassy told CamboJA in an emailed statement that all the victims had been “forced to become scammers” and required a “rescue effort by CNP [Cambodian National Police].”

But CamboJA spoke with police officials involved in the case who said that this was not a police rescue nor were these victims of human trafficking or online scams, arguing that the Indonesian citizens were not detained or beaten. 

Use of force is just one means of trafficking, according to the UN, and traffickers can also use deception, coercion, abuse of power or threats of violence to exploit people for profit. Traffickers also often use “fake promises of education and job opportunities to trick and coerce their victims.”

A Svay Rieng police official, who would not give his name to CamboJA, confirmed that police had removed Indonesian citizens from Moc Bai Casino, located in Bavet, in June at the request of the Indonesian Embassy. But he took issue with describing the situation as a rescue. 

“Saying the word ‘rescue’ is not right, because their ambassador asked us to go so we went to bring them back,” he said. “They were not detained or beaten, and they said that they just wanted to go home.”

The Svay Rieng police official said when police arrived at the casino, they saw other foreigners walking on the street and some Indonesians who had asked for help from the embassy were also walking outside the building. Because they were not detained in the building by the company, he said they should not be called victims. 

He also claimed that there are no cases of human trafficking, online scams or detainment at Moc Bai Casino.

“The media is always publishing whatever they want to. We can’t stop them,” he said.

More than 60 Vietnamese nationals escaped from Moc Bai Casino in September 2022, according to VOD, although officials denied that they were forced into labor or detained. 

Local and foreign media have reported other incidents involving foreign workers at the Moc Bai Casino complex dating back to at least 2017.

CamboJA reported in July on a National Police report released to the public about police removing 35 Vietnamese employees from Oriental Paris Casino, another casino in Bavet. In April, CamboJA reported that police were investigating the murder of a woman who worked for Dynasty Entertainment, a casino across the street from the Moc Bai Casino complex which has advertised “call center” positions. She was found beheaded in her rental room. 

Bavet City Police Chief Em Sovannarith claimed on Wednesday there have never been any illegal cases of people being detained at Moc Bai Casino. In the past, Sovannarith and other Cambodian authorities have denied forced labor and detainment following the release of foreign workers. 

Sovannarith said that police have patrolled the area and “people were walking all over in Bavet city and some Indonesians went outside while some of them rode motorbikes” he said, noting that their motorbikes made loud noises. “Nobody was detained [by their employer].”

Banteay Meanchey provincial Police Chief Sith Luos claimed there have never been scams or human trafficking cases in his province, contrary to repeated allegations from media reports focused on Poipet city over the past two years.

“Throughout the past, there has been no such thing [as human trafficking in the province],” said Luos. “The information that said there was trafficking in Banteay Meanchey, that has not happened yet, I want to say that.”

He said when workers have said they were detained by their employers, which he claims has never occurred in the province, it was because the workers had their passports confiscated by employers after not being able to pay back loans. The workers in this situation, he said, have falsely claimed they are being detained in order to get help from the police.

“Many of the cases that happened in Banteay Meanchey were cases where people who worked and owed money or were involved in borrowing money, had their passports revoked by their employer in exchange for a loan,” he said “When there is no money to pay back, it becomes a matter of confinement.”

Debt bondage, in which people are forced to work to pay off debts, can be an element of a human trafficking or forced labor case, according to the International Labor Organization and the UN. Confiscation of documents is also an indicator of trafficking.

According to Detik News, the publication got information about the victims in the video on May 29, and then contacted Indonesian authorities. Detik News identified the man speaking in the June 6 recording as Herri, 38, from Medan, Indonesia. He says he and a group of other Indonesian workers are in “Moc Bai Bavet,” but it is unclear from the released footage if he is referring to the general area near the Moc Bai – Bavet border crossing to Vietnam or Moc Bai Casino specifically. 

One member of this group named Steven told Detik News he was recruited on Telegram, and the group flew to Vietnam before crossing into Cambodia. He said they arrived in the “Mocbai Bavet” area on March 28 and entered a building near a casino.

But once at their workplace, they were instructed to work at computers and carry out romance scams. They were told to scam other Indonesians by using the dating app TanTan and then asking people to deposit money on a binary options application called Mekri. Steven said Indian and Vietnamese people were also working in other rooms in the building. 

Indonesian officials reported that the Cambodian government concluded that these Indonesians were not trafficking victims, and were detained at an immigration detention center for overstaying their residence permits. This group was detained for over a month and a half before returning to Indonesia. 

San Sokseyha, spokesperson of Phnom Penh’s municipal government, told CamboJA to send questions to the National Police. National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Kheuon did not respond to requests for comment on Telegram.

Keo Vanthorn, spokesperson for the Immigration Department at the Interior Ministry, told CamboJA that all 41 Indonesians were involved in illegally staying and working in Cambodia. They were deported, and flew back to Indonesia from Phnom Penh Airport between July 14 to and August 5 after receiving orders to leave the country from the Ministry of Interior. Five of the Indonesian nationals were women. 

National Committee for Counter Trafficking Vice Chairperson Chou Bun Eng said she had not received any information yet about this case involving Indonesian nationals. She has received reports from authorities about Moc Bai Casino in the past, she said, but she is not clear on if crimes were committed at the location.

Updated: This article has been updated on August 14  at 5:25 p.m. to include comments from the Indonesian Embassy in Phnom Penh.