For Vietnamese trafficked to Cambodia, rescue can't come fast enough

By Staff reporters   September 12, 2022 | 10:00 pm PT
While they are waiting for Vietnamese and Cambodian authorities to rescue their trafficked children, many parents in Vietnam are sitting on hot coals.

Some have even mortgaged their house to raise enough money to pay "ransoms," fearing their child might even be killed otherwise.

Every night for the past three months Tran Thi Nhung and her husband, Phan Van Hanh, of Hoa My Dong Commune in Tay Hoa District in the south-central province of Phu Yen have been waiting for their son to call.

Tran Thi Nhung waits anxiously for her son to return home from Cambodia. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Tran Thi Nhung waits anxiously for her son to return home from Cambodia. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Since early June their oldest son, Phan Van Duc, 26, has been allowed to call them off and on to report on his situation and plead for help.

The last time he called he told them he had been severely beaten, could not breathe, vomited the meager porridge he had eaten, and was forced to work until 3 am every day.

Like thousands of other vulnerable young Vietnamese, Duc had been tricked and trafficked to Cambodia to slave for another unidentified criminal gang.

He was ordered to help traffic five Vietnamese there every month, refused, and was threatened he would be killed if his family did not pay a ransom of VND240 million (US$10,190).

When Nhung first saw an image of her son being beaten, she suffered from a heart attack and had to be hospitalized. When she recovered, she and her husband ran around borrowing money to buy time for her son and even mortgaged their modest house to borrow VND100 million ($4,250), hoping to rescue him eventually.

Nhung has reported her son’s case to the Phu Yen police, who said they are working with Cambodian authorities on the issue.

In the Phu Yen police’s estimation, 11 people from the province have been sold into forced labor in Cambodia since January 2022 alone. All of the victims are young, from poor families and dropped out of school early. The traffickers duped them in one way or another, and paid for transportation to take them to HCMC and on to Cambodia.

Of the 11, the Phu Yen police have managed to rescue seven and are investigating the rest.

In July, the Ministry of Public Security issued a warning about the trafficking of Vietnamese workers aged 18 to 35 to Cambodia.

Through social media, these people are promised "easy jobs, easy money," only to find themselves being detained, forced to work long hours and sold among illegal groups engaged in activities such as fraudulent online gambling and crypto trading.

The victims are also promised they would be released or paid bonuses if they find, trick and bring more Vietnamese to Cambodia.

Often, the family has to pay a ransom of up to $30,000 to get their children back alive.

These criminal gangs concentrate on locations along Cambodia’s borders such as Bavet City in Svayrieng Province and Chrey Thum City in Kandal Province in the southeast, Poipet City in Banteay Meanchey Province and Sihanoukville City in Preah Sihanouk Province in the west bordering Thailand and the capital Phnom Penh.

Since 2017, in these and other tourist ‘boomtowns’ or special economic zones in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia and Asia, casinos have been mushrooming, rapidly becoming a lucrative industry worth billions of dollars, especially through online gambling.

They have generated hundreds of thousands of jobs and increasingly attracted investors, who have come to build not just casinos, but also related facilities such as hotels, resorts, restaurants, bars, shopping malls, and apartments.

However, along with economic development comes the risk of crimes such as money laundering, online financial fraud, prostitution, drug dealing, human trafficking, and workers’ exploitation.

Covid-19, which severely affected business, caused a surge in illegal activities to compensate for the fall in legitimate revenues.

Throughout the region, people lost their jobs because of the pandemic and easily fell prey to online fraud and human trafficking.

Casino-associated crimes have become so serious that in recent years Chinese authorities have worked with their Southeast Asian counterparts to crack down on them and made online gambling illegal. Cambodia prohibited it in August 2019.

Despite regional governments’ efforts, online frauds and associated human trafficking and forced labor continue unabated.

As recently as in the first half of this year, nine countries offered to work with Cambodia to combat human trafficking: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Cambodia and Vietnam have been collaborating for years to combat human trafficking under a bilateral agreement.

Rescue work takes time

According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security, it is not easy to rescue people who have been trafficked and sold into forced labor in Cambodia.

Colonel Khong Ngoc Oanh of the ministry’s Criminal Police Department recently told the media that in Cambodia many trafficking groups operate deep inside forests under the guise of being legitimate companies, making it hard for outsiders to know what is happening inside.

Whenever Vietnamese authorities are informed about a trafficking case, they proceed according to the agreement but have to wait for their Cambodian counterparts to investigate and verify the information, and this is also a difficult process, he said.

Authorities find it hard to track down young migrant workers who fall into the clutches of criminal gangs because many of them do not inform their families about where and with whom they are going or when they plan to return for fear their parents would object, he said.

According to Kong Arey, an investigative journalist at The Khmer Times, a Cambodian English-language newspaper that has reported extensively about the issue, a great deal of verification is needed to separate victims from accomplices, and Cambodian authorities also need their foreign counterparts to crack down on local job recruiters who traffic people to Cambodia.

On August 18, the issue burst into the national limelight in Vietnam when 42 people who had been sold to the Golden Phoenix Entertainment Casino in Koh Thom District in Kandal Province jumped into the Binh Di River to swim across to Vietnam in a desperate effort to flee their hellish workplace.

Forty made it home, one drowned and one was recaptured. Vietnamese and Cambodian police later busted four trafficking gangs involved in the case as well as the Golden Phoenix’s Chinese manager, who admitted to using forced labor.

42 people who had been sold to a casino in Cambodia jump into the Binh Di River to swim across to Vietnam

Soon 11 other Vietnamese workers were also rescued from the Golden Phoenix, including the one who was captured, taking the total number of people to have been rescued in 2022 to over 600.

According to Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, who heads a national committee on human trafficking, this year, by late August, Cambodia had investigated 87 cases of human trafficking, tried 17 cases involving a total of 60 people, and rescued 865 foreigners.

Cambodian authorities have also set up a national hotline, 117, and started a nationwide campaign to track down traffickers and their victims, inspecting all foreigners living in Cambodia, except embassy personnel.

According to Sim Chy, chairman of the Khmer-Vietnamese Association, which has been actively helping authorities weed out human trafficking in Cambodia, many dubious businesses illegally employ up to 300 Vietnamese people.

Until all can return

Ever since her son was trafficked Nhung has not been able to sleep at night. These days she always carries her phone with her hoping to get a call from him.

She says while she is anxious to hear from him, she is also afraid.

"I’m afraid because I don’t want to see him painfully abused, but feel somewhat content to know he is still alive."

She has paid almost VND210 million ($8,915) in ransom so far and says she will do whatever it takes to rescue her son as long as he is still alive.

Twenty kilometers away from her house, in Hoa An Commune in Phu Hoa District, Pham Thi Trinh is also feverishly waiting for her son, Nguyen Minh Tri, also 26, to return home.

Pham Thi Trinh and her husband, Nguyen Ngoc Thuc, recall how they tried to ransom their son. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Pham Thi Trinh and her husband, Nguyen Ngoc Thuc, recall how they tried to ransom their son. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

One afternoon in late July Tri, who was then working as a construction worker in HCMC, went missing. Three days later Trinh learned her son had been sold to Cambodia and if she wanted him back she would have to pay VND100 million ($4,245) in ransom.

She and her husband, Nguyen Ngoc Thuc, both of whom are also low-paid construction workers, have managed to raise VND50 million ($2,120) from relatives and neighbors and hope to strike a deal with their son’s captors.

But they have not been able to work out a deal yet.

"We can’t eat now and can only hope for a miracle, because we don’t know what to do," says Trinh, who has reported her son as missing to the HCMC police.

For young people who have been ransomed and managed to return, it takes time to recover and heal besides having to work hard to repay the debts their parents have incurred.

Thuc Uyen, 19, of Krong Pac District in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak is one such person.

Earlier this year Uyen met a recruiter who promised her a well-paid job, but drugged and trafficked her to Cambodia. Only several months later was she allowed to call and tell her mother she had been forced to work, tortured, starved, and sold among gangs, suffering the lot befalling so many others.

Her mother, Truong Thi Tam, was threatened that her daughter would be sold to Thailand if she did not pay VND250 million ($10,610) within 20 days. Tam did what was told, borrowing from loan sharks.

"As long as she is alive, our whole family can work to pay back our debts," the mother says, dearly wishing that nobody else suffers what her daughter went through.

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