Save Bangladeshi ‘cyber slaves’ in Cambodia

Starved, tortured, and forced to scam, these people are living in inhumane conditions

The digital space is notorious for traps and scams that require users to be extremely careful. But how much do we know about those behind the scams? While online fraudsters are by design secretive, an investigative report by The Daily Star has thrown an unlikely twist into the mix, as it revealed how Bangladeshi victims of trafficking in Cambodia – where scam operations proliferated during the pandemic – are being forced to work for transnational cyber-scam gangs. The report highlights the plight of several such victims who shared their experiences, with hundreds more feared to be still trapped, doing the bidding of their captors.

These victims form an unlikely community of scammers rounded up from a number of Asian countries, including Bangladesh, representing what is being called "cyber slavery". One of them is 25-year-old Foysal Hossain who, after visiting Cambodia in early 2021 for the job of a receptionist, found himself sold to cyber-scammers. As he narrated to this newspaper, he was held captive in a fortified complex called The Crown College, and equipped with digital tools to syphon off money from unsuspecting US citizens. He refused initially, but relented after seeing that it only led to beating, electric shocks and solitary confinement in a toilet for days.

Apparently, there are many prison-like compounds like The Crown College, the conditions of which were likened to a "living hell" in a 2022 report by Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia. Thousands are kept in these heavily-guarded compounds after being lured with enticing job offers, and then sold at what appear to be marketplaces for humans. Extortion and violence are two of the methods of abuse used by criminal syndicates against victims who refuse to become scammers. Poor performers are sold multiple times, many dying in torture.

This paper talked to a number of victims who shared horrifying details of their ordeal as they worked for criminal networks linked to online gambling and fraud. Lured, sold, tortured and forced to scam, they all had similar stories, and were lucky to have escaped. What was equally hurtful for them was non-cooperation from the Bangladesh embassy in neighbouring Thailand (Bangladesh has no embassy in Cambodia). Some of the survivors alleged that they had to pay bribe for papers/permits, and faced negligence when they approached embassy officials for help. When contacted, representatives at the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) and the ministry of foreign affairs claimed that they were not aware of the enslavement of Bangladeshis in Cambodia, which is hard to believe.

Clearly, the authorities are still in a state of denial, which can be costly for those still trapped. The importance of proper response in this regard cannot be stressed enough. We urge the higher authorities to step up their anti-trafficking activities. They must raise awareness among aspirant migrants, take firm action against fraudulent recruiting agencies/brokers, especially those operating online, and ensure quick rescue of victims with the cooperation of the authorities in destination countries, including Cambodia. Bangladesh must up its game to address the growing threat of trafficking and cyber slavery.