Hongkonger was ‘kidnapped’ in Thailand by a Southeast Asia scam ring and is asking for help

HONG KONG: Anti-trafficking activists in Hong Kong yesterday (24 August) played a harrowing recording of a resident testifying that he was kidnapped and forced to work for online fraud syndicates in Myanmar.

Human rights lawyer Patricia Ho (left) and Michelle Wong (right), program manager at STOP, an anti-trafficking NGO, spoke to Hong Kong media yesterday (24 August) about Hong Kong residents being smuggled into Southeast Asia and being forced into fraud syndicates to work. Photo: AFP

Online boiler room scams have long been present across Southeast Asia, but in recent months more details have emerged about people being trafficked and forced to work for them.

Victims have reported traveling to Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos with false promises of romance or high-paying jobs and then being jailed and forced to work, sometimes for months.

A 30-year-old man, identified only as John, said he had been trapped in Myanmar for three months and forced by gunmen to carry out scams, according to an audio recording released yesterday.

“I’ve seen people try to escape but fail, they’ve been shot and carried back… Escape is not an option,” he said.

“It is very stressful. Money comes first. If I can’t meet the (sales) quota, maybe they’ll send me somewhere else where the conditions could be ten times worse.”

AFP is unable to independently verify the account, which was released by local Hong Kong advocacy group Stop Trafficking of People and human rights lawyer Patricia Ho.

John said he went to Thailand for a holiday at the invitation of a friend but was kidnapped and taken to Myanmar where his passport was confiscated.

According to the Hong Kong government, 39 residents have asked for help since January after falling victim to boiler room scams.

Law enforcement officials have set up a task force and have urged victims to use a government-run mobile app to submit details and send photos of their surroundings.

John said he was contacted by the Hong Kong Task Force on Tuesday but was told the situation was “out of their control” and must be left to the Chinese government.

He added that a contact at the Chinese embassy in Myanmar told him two months ago to try to escape, but then didn’t reply.

According to Hong Kong authorities, 21 people are in captivity in Myanmar and Cambodia, while 18 others have been confirmed safe.

Family members of fraud victims in Hong Kong have turned to the media and political parties to voice their grievances.

Michelle Wong, Stop Trafficking of People’s program manager, said Southeast Asian trafficking rings have increasingly turned their attention to young, educated people of Chinese descent.

“If the government could show this kind of pattern to the public in Hong Kong sooner, such cases could be prevented,” Wong told reporters.

Hong Kong police have arrested six people in connection with the scams, some of whom face charges of conspiracy to commit fraud and playing the role of middlemen.

However, attorney Ho argued that the lack of a specific law against human trafficking and forced labor makes it difficult for police and prosecutors to do their jobs.

“(The current system) does not necessarily capture the seriousness of the crime that we are looking at,” she said yesterday.

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