Calls for help come day and night from people sold into slavery: Vietnam envoy in Cambodia

By Thanh Danh   September 14, 2022 | 09:00 pm PT
Calls for help come day and night from people sold into slavery: Vietnam envoy in Cambodia
A group of Vietnamese workers returns to Vietnam from Cambodia through a border gate in An Giang Province, September 1, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Khanh
The sheer number of people traveling from Vietnam to Cambodia's Sihanoukville and sold into modern slavery is a major challenge to rescue efforts.

Since the beginning of this year the Vietnamese consulate in Sihanoukville has collaborated with Cambodian authorities to carry out 50-60 searches and rescued over 600 people from forced labor.

Since last year over 800 Vietnamese have been rescued from Preah Sihanouk Province alone.

But consul general Vu Ngoc Ly says the actual number of Vietnamese victims of illegal labor gangs in Cambodia is much bigger, and rescue efforts face several challenges.

The biggest is the sheer number of people coming from Vietnam to Cambodia, resulting in large numbers of victims, and every day the consulate receives dozens of requests for rescue, he says.

"Recently calls have been coming day and night and constantly. We don't dare turn off our phones."

In April the consulate received calls for help from some Vietnamese who said they were being held as forced laborers, he says.

"The consulate cooperated with the local police and rescued 270 workers trapped in the facility. All of them were Vietnamese, but only around 50 of them had papers, while the rest had traveled to Cambodia illegally."

He says all have returned safely to Vietnam.

Another challenge rescuers face is that information sent to the consulate is often not comprehensive and very difficult to be verified.

"Many messages only have names and ages, along with pictures of personal ID cards. Family members only know that they traveled to Cambodia or were residing in Sihanoukville, but do not know where exactly they are.

"Some do send GPS data, but they only show an area with five or six buildings; we don't know for sure in which building they are."

The Cambodian police require exact information such as room numbers, floors and addresses before they send in officers, and they are admittedly spread thin since they have to deal with multiple cases at the same time, he says.

More and more illegal workers are coming from Vietnam to Cambodia, and the number is rising fast, he says.

"Every time we get one person out, another two or three get in."

The issue of Vietnamese sold into slavery in areas like Sihanoukville and Preah Sihanouk has been on the rise since late last year, when Covid-19 restrictions were relaxed in the two countries.

The gangs use social media to lure Vietnamese, promising them "easy jobs with high pay." The victims are usually people aged 20-30, though sometimes as young as 14-15.

Ly says almost everyone who comes to Cambodia illegally eventually becomes a victim of forced labor.

Once they arrive in Cambodia, they are asked to sign contracts in Khmer, English or Chinese, and a majority of them sign them without exactly knowing their contents, he points out.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, forced labor facilities mostly masquerade as online businesses or casinos.

The victims realize too late their "dream jobs" are not what they had seemed, and are forced to work with low pay and suffer from fines for contract breaches.

"Bosses give them quotas, like how much money one has to defraud people out of in a day, or even how many Vietnamese one has to lure to Cambodia," Ly explains.

"If the quotas are not met, bosses make people work 16-17 hours a day, withhold salaries or sell employees to others."

There are numerous cases of victims being beaten and ordered to pay compensation for contract breaches.

The consulate says the ransom amounts needed to get victims out have been increasing in the last two years from around $1,000 in 2020-2021 to $2,000-5,000 since the end of last year.

There are cases of ransoms of $20,000.

Some people call their families to seek help, even threatening to commit suicide as they "might as well be dead" rather than live the way they did.

Many families sell everything they have or borrow money to pay the ransom.

Families who simply cannot raise the money seek help from Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities.

Ly says an important measure to stop this problem is to educate people about the promises of "easy jobs with high pay" in foreign countries, especially those living near borders with other countries.

The consulate says education should happen in families and at schools and be aimed at young people and those who lack access to information.

Ly says: "The number of rescued people seems to be fewer than it actually is. But I believe that in one or two years there will be no such issue in Sihanoukville."

He points to the anti-crime campaigns by Cambodian authorities to stamp out human trafficking and modern slavery.

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