A rash of cases of human trafficking have rocked Hong Kong, cosmopolitan financial center. At least 43 Hongkongers have been kidnapped in Southeast Asia and forced into illegal labor since January. 23 are now safely home, and 12 more remain detained in Cambodia, three in Myanmar, and the other in Cambodia.
This is the latest manifestation of an ongoing problem that has been going on for decades. In 2017, 40 million victims were reported to be human traffickers, with 25 million being from East Asia. While it’s been a major problem in the region, there have been recent increases in cases from a new set of victims. Experts believe that the rise in human trafficking is a result of the lack of jobs for white collar workers resulting from the pandemic.
Patricia Ho, who is the University of Hong Kong’s principal law lecturer, said that syndicates first targeted Vietnamese and Malaysians. They have recently been targeting Hongkongers and Taiwanese.
Taiwanese police believed that thousands of tourists from Taiwan, the island self-governing, were missing. They had traveled to Cambodia as an epicenter of Asian fraud rings.
Although scammers tend to target low-income people, Ho claims that the effects of the pandemic have made it easier for middle-class individuals to fall prey to these schemes. “Victims are tricked to work in situations that come across to them initially as legitimate jobs,” Ho says. “It’s [easier] for more educated people to fall victim.”
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Jan Santiago, the U.S.-based Global Anti-Scam Organization’s deputy director, said that more students are being targeted by scam syndicates from Southeast Asia. They are seeking tech-literate workers that can speak multiple languages, and who have an understanding of cryptocurrency.
Stop Trafficking of Persons, a non-governmental organization in Hong Kong released recordings on August 22 from two Hongkongers who were 30 years old and described their experiences as human trafficking victims. The one referred to as Dee said that he traveled to Mae Sot in west Thailand after responding to a Facebook advertisement offering a $6400 per month salary for his advertising work. Dee claimed that he was forced to drive a car by people with knives and stun guns upon arriving in Thailand. He was then smuggled into Myanmar—where he was made to choose between paying a $10,000 ransom or working 12 hours per day in phone scams.
“I tried my best to figure out how to leave,” Dee said. “It’s impossible to work with them, because it’s illegal to defraud.”
TIME couldn’t independently confirm the recording. However, law enforcement officers across Asia offered similar stories. Opportunities for overseas jobs are available online and offer high monthly salaries, even to people with no previous experience. After job-seekers accept the lure and take off, scammers then seize their mobile phones and other travel documents. The victims are forced into fraud and threatened with torture or assault if they don’t comply.
Patricia Ho, a human rights lawyer, and Michelle Wong, a programme manager at STOP (an anti-trafficking NGO), spoke to media in Hong Kong about the trafficking of Hong Kong citizens into South East Asia, and their forced labor in scam syndicates.
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There is no protection available for victims of trafficking
Hong Kong’s authorities tried various responses to trafficking incidents, like warning travellers at the airport about fraud and setting up an operation for victims. Hong Kong’s security bureau also tells TIME that local laws have a “comprehensive package of safeguards comparable to composite [Trafficking in Persons] laws found in other jurisdictions”
Most of the laws however are focused on domestic migrant workers. Rescuing victims isn’t an easy task, either. Tony Ho, Hong Kong’s Police Superintendent stated earlier that the force had been working with Interpol as well as other international law enforcement agencies. However it proved difficult to find suspects or gather enough evidence to charge them due to their geographical location.
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Some victims of trafficking who are being defrauded by their peers may not be able to seek help because they fear their legal responsibility. STOP program manager Michelle Wong says what’s needed in a place like Hong Kong is “bespoke legislation to ensure that victims of trafficking are granted some level of criminal immunity.”
The insidious business of human trafficking has been growing at an alarming rate, making an estimated $150 billion annually, most of which is funneled through cryptocurrency. It’s easy for traffickers to evade the law and operate sophisticated, large-scale scams.
“The problem is that human trafficking is just such a lucrative trade,” Ho the campaigner says. “We’re dealing with trying to stop somebody from making a lot of money. When that happens, all we can do is just to make it as difficult for them as possible.”
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