Human traffickers in Asia target new victims

A A wave of human trafficking cases has rocked Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan financial hub. Since January, city authorities have received calls for help from at least 43 Hong Kongers abducted and forced to perform illegal labor in Southeast Asia. Among them, 23 returned safely, while 12 others are still detained in Cambodia and three others in Myanmar.

These cases are the latest iteration of a decades-old problem. According 2017 figures, 40 million people are victims of human trafficking, including some 25 million in East Asia. But while it has long been a regional scourge, there has recently been an increase in cases among a different set of victims. Human traffickers are adapting to the times, experts say, taking advantage of white-collar unemployment resulting from the pandemic.

Patricia Ho, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong who campaigns against human trafficking, says unions initially targeted Malays and Vietnamese. But recently, they have gone after Taiwanese and Hong Kongers.

In August, Taiwanese police estimated that thousands of people on the self-governing island remained missing after traveled to cambodiaan epicenter of Asian scam rings.

While most scams target low-income groups, Ho says the fallout from the pandemic has caused even the middle class to let their guard down. “Victims are tricked into working in situations that initially appear to them to be legitimate jobs,” Ho says. “His [easier] for more educated people to fall victim to it.

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Jan Santiago, deputy director of the US-based Global Anti-Scam Organization, says unions in Southeast Asia are targeting more university graduates. They are looking for tech-savvy workers who are fluent in multiple languages ​​and have a working knowledge of cryptocurrency.

In Hong Kong, the non-governmental organization Stop Trafficking of Persons (STOP) on August 22 released recordings of two 30-year-old Hong Kongers detailing their ordeal as victims of human trafficking. One, under the pseudonym Dee, said he flew to the city of Mae Sot in western Thailand after responding to a Facebook ad that offered a monthly salary of 6,400 dollars for publicity work. Dee said when he arrived, people carrying stun guns and knives forced him into a car. He was then smuggled into Myanmar, where he had to choose between paying a $10,000 ransom or working 12-hour days on phone scams.

“I did my best to figure out how to leave,” Dee said. “It is impossible to work with them, because it is illegal to defraud.”

TIME could not independently verify the recording, but law enforcement officials across Asia offered similar anecdotes. Overseas job vacancies are posted online, offering generous monthly salaries to those with little or no experience. Once job seekers take the bait and fly away, scammers arrest them and deprive them of their phones and travel documents. Victims are then forced to defraud others, constantly threatened with aggression and torture if they do not meet the quotas or refuse to comply.

Human rights lawyer Patricia Ho (L) and program director of anti-trafficking NGO STOP Michelle Wong (R) talk to the media in Hong Kong on August 24, 2022, about resident trafficking from Hong Kong to Southeast Asia and forced to work in fraudulent unions.

ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP via Getty Images

Little protection for victims of trafficking

Hong Kong authorities have tried to respond to the recent increase in trafficking cases in a variety of ways, such as warning travelers at the airport about scams and setting up a task force for victims. Hong Kong’s security bureau also told TIME that local laws have a “comprehensive set of safeguards comparable to composites.” [Trafficking in Persons] laws found in other jurisdictions.

However, many of these laws relate primarily to the migrant domestic worker population. Rescuing the victims is not an easy task either. Hong Kong Police Chief Superintendent Tony Ho earlier told reporters that while the force worked with Interpol and foreign law enforcement, it was difficult to identify suspects and gather evidence for prosecute them because of their location.

From the archives: How to spot a victim of human trafficking and help them

In addition, some victims of trafficking forced to defraud their fellow citizens may be reluctant to seek help, fearing their own legal liability. STOP program manager Michelle Wong said what was needed in a place like Hong Kong was ‘tailor-made legislation to ensure that victims of trafficking enjoy a certain level of criminal immunity’ .

Meanwhile, human trafficking is a big, insidious business, which is believed to be $150 billion in revenuea large part channeled in cryptocurrency. It is easy for traffickers to evade the law and commit large-scale, sophisticated scams.

“The problem is that human trafficking is such a lucrative business,” says Ho, the activist. “We are trying to prevent someone from making a lot of money. When this happens, all we can do is just make it as difficult for them as possible.

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