Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Most scam compounds in Sihanoukville remain unnamed as authorities downplay human trafficking

Buildings in which trafficked workers were detained for online scan operations in Sihanoukville. Supplied by Central
Buildings in which trafficked workers were detained for online scan operations in Sihanoukville. Supplied by Central

As authorities in Sihanoukville continue a crackdown on human trafficking rings, the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central) said it had found evidence that some cyber scam compounds have been able to continue to operate by shifting their front businesses.

In a brief updated report on the “situation human trafficking and forced labor”, the group said it had recorded four cases, involving 44 local and foreign workers, including Cambodians, Thais, Vietnamese, and Malaysians who were forced to work 13 to 16 hours a day while not allowed leave the building and being violent.

Central interviewed a Malaysian victim who was rescued from a casino in Commune 3 who said he was forced to run forex and ponzi scams and was not allowed to communicate with the outside world.

Without mentioning the name of the compound, Central said that the business venue remains in operation.

“The compounds are strictly guarded, and workers [faced] violent tortured, sexual harassment, starvation, and confinement in the bathroom,” the report read, quoting a victim as saying.

The report said illegal online gaming has mostly been shifted under other business models, such as real estate and technology institutes while some businesses are simply unnamed. There, thousands of workers toil under tight security and without being allowed to step outside.

Moeun Tola, Cenral’s executive director,​ said victims told the group that the unnamed buildings are simply referred to as “Chinatown” and that authorities have turned a blind eye to such centers.

“This is a distorted interpretation, if we look at the situation of victims, they are in the form of human trafficking and confinement,” he said.

He said these trafficking rings have spread beyond Sihanoukville to casinos in other border provinces and urged authorities to take effective measures.

“Foreign workers cannot get out of the building. Even if they get higher wages, they cannot spend it outside, they have to spend it all there, where a lot of services were established,” he said.

Preah Sihanouk provincial authorities recently cracked down on a number of businesses involved in confinement, forced labor and human trafficking, securing the release of more than one hundred of foreign workers.

However, the location involved in confinement and smuggling are not released and officials deny the cases were linked to human trafficking — even though the released workers reported being resold from one workplace to another and prevented from leaving each casino.

Preah Sihanouk Provincial Police chief Choun Narin said most cases were labor disputes and not linked to forced labor or confinement.

“It was not a case of confinement, human trafficking or kidnapping. Those who had sought help did so because they could not go freely outside the company and wanted to return home,” he said. “They [workers] wanted to leave, because they were not satisfied with the job offered, so we could not regard it as another crime.”

Long Dimanche, deputy governor of Sihanoukville, told CamboJA that so far there were no figures on locations closed by the crackdown, while authorities are still investigating those sites.

“We are investigating the companies’ business licenses and checking to see if the site is legal and taxed properly to the state,” he said. “We are also conducting more inspections regarding the search for work permits and residence permits of foreigner workers.”

The country’s coastal province, formerly popular with foreign and local tourists, has become a hub of Chinese-owned businesses and casinos. In recent years, there have been soaring reports of cyber scams that rely on large numbers of trafficked and enslaved foreign workers.

Over the last two years, hundreds of foreign workers have arrived to these compounds after being promised high paid-jobs — only to be violently forced to run a range of online scams themselves on their countrymen in China, Taiwan, and across Southeast Asia.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng said last week that from January to August, authorities rescued 865 foreigners who were trafficked and smuggled to Cambodia.

Those who were rescued, he said, had sought help from a hotline team set up by the Interior Ministry.

Am Sam Ath, operation director at rights group Licadho, said the basic principles of human rights note that when someone is denied freedom from any place it is considered an act of confinement since it affects the rights and freedoms of individuals.

“I believe that the authorities do not want to use the term confinement as it seriously affects human rights issues,” he said, adding that after the U.S report on human trafficking in Cambodia this year downgraded the country, the government has shown more attention to this issue.

“We see that even the UN Special Rapporteur has raised concerns about human trafficking in Cambodia,” he said. “It is a hot issue that will affect Cambodia’s image, it affects international tourists to Cambodia as some countries would warn their citizens not to enter Cambodia.”

During his visit to Cambodia, Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia also met with Sihanoukville governor Kuoch Chamroeun to raise issue of coercion, human trafficking, cybercrime, and online fraud.

He said in a news release on August 26 that Cambodia has recently transformed from trafficking source to trafficking destination country.

“Countries are now waking up to the phenomenon [of trafficking to the country] and Cambodia needs to activate counter-measures more strongly, while welcoming international cooperation and support,” Muntarbhorn said. 

Cambodia is back on another U.S. blacklist in its 2022 Trafficking in Persons report, downgraded the Kingdom to Tier 3 status, the lowest of three designations, citing endemic corruption and an unwillingness to hold human traffickers accountable.