‘All I could think was, I’m about to die’ – Taiwanese couple trafficked to Cambodia

Beginning in the second half of 2021, Taiwanese nationals were lured by high-paying jobs to Cambodian scam rings where they were detained, beaten, resold, and otherwise enslaved. According to a rough estimate by Taiwan’s National Police Agency, there are likely thousands of victims. 

Why are Taiwanese flocking to Cambodia in droves? How did this fantasy journey become a nightmare?

One journalist spent weeks interviewing victims who escaped after being trafficked to Cambodia. From their personal experiences, we learn how they fell prey to traffickers and scammers.

The following is part two of a four-part digest. This series was originally published in August 2022 by The Reporter, an independent investigative news outlet in Taiwan. RFA obtained the rights to republish parts of the series in English.

 

In March 2022, a young couple in Taiwan was looking for opportunities. Guan Jie, 28, and Yi An, 30, (pseudonyms) had opened a store together, but were forced to close because of the pandemic, leaving Guan Jie with tens of thousands of U.S. dollars in debt.

At that time, a friend of Guan Jie’s that he had known for 10 years introduced the couple to a job advertised on the Facebook group “Side Door Jobs,” working back-end customer service in a resort called “New MGM Phase II.” The job description read: “A monthly salary of NT$40,000-50,000 (U.S. $1,300-1600), 8 days off a month, typing personnel. Travel to Cambodia.” For many people, working abroad is a dream come true—especially for Guan Jie and Yi An, who had never been outside of Taiwan.

“I thought it would be great to be able to work abroad,” Guan Jie said in an interview. 

They took the bait. In Taiwan, the human trafficking ring first provided a sophisticated fake company profile. The couple was told that the place where they would stay included gyms, rooms for couples, and other perks. The trafficker also personally brought Guan Jie and Yi An from outside Taipei to sign a contract with a hotel in the city and the intermediary even helped Guan Jie pay off two debts of several thousand. “I thought at the time, oh my God, why are they being so good!” Guan Jie smiled wryly. 

The trafficker took them to get passports, take PCR tests, and checked them into a hotel in downtown Taipei a few nights before boarding the plane. On March 11, Guan Jie, Yi An, Guan Jie’s friend, and two other Taiwanese – a total of five people – took a flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and were sent directly to the coastal town of Sihanoukville. From the first contact with the Taiwanese trafficking group to their departure and landing, no more than a week had gone by. 

Guan Jie said he quickly learned that he had been sold to a trafficking ring after being lured to Cambodia by “pig sellers,” or victims who were forced to find new targets for the operation.

“A group of pig sellers bought us and sold us again. We were treated as animals, not people,” he said.

Guan Jie and Yi An were “assigned” similar jobs, but the target they were after was foreigners.

“We just used Google Translate to connect emotionally [to the victims]. After we talked for a while, we transferred them to senior employees to “reel them in,” Yi An said. 

She said that the company also employed foreign women who would video chat with targets to deceive them.

A chance to escape

Guan Jie and Yi An said they were “lucky” not to have been beaten during their time being held by the trafficking ring, although they saw other victims being “dealt with” by members of the ring.

Guan Jie said that sometimes the music in the office would suddenly be turned up loud.

“I knew that [next door] someone was being electrocuted again,” he said. “All I could think was, I’m about to die.”

Guan Jie said that he tried to obey his captors’ orders, but he wasn’t good at luring new victims and faced the risk of being “resold” to a new trafficking ring because of his poor performance.

“When I knew I might be resold, I started calling for help,” Guan Jie said. He knew that even if the chances were slim that he would be rescued, he had to take a chance. 

Most of those held at trafficking rings in the Sihanoukville industrial park still have access to social media. The ring that detained Guan Jie only required people to hand over their cell phones during work hours, so during his off-hours, he searched the internet for ways to escape from Cambodia. At first, he called the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vietnam – Taiwan’s de facto embassy in the country – for emergency assistance and wrote a petition to the Taiwanese government, but to no avail.

Later, Guan Jie contacted Taiwan’s National Police Agency, and an officer he spoke with provided him with the Facebook profile of the governor of Sihanoukville. After confirming their exact location and “company” through the special assistant of the provincial governor, local police rescued Guan Jie and Yi An and sent the couple to immigration.

Even at the immigration office, Guan Jie and Yi An remained in danger. The couple learned that even the authorities were unable to resist the chance to make tens of thousands of dollars “selling” victims to local trafficking rings, and they were repeatedly asked if they wanted to accept “work” opportunities instead of returning home.

In the end, the couple paid a U.S. $3,000 “ransom” to the local contacts of a Taiwanese gang and were allowed to board a flight back to Taiwan after more than three months of being trapped at the industrial park in Sihanoukville.

“I felt reborn,” Yi An said of the relief she experienced after arriving in Taipei. “Fortunately, I didn’t die there. I really didn’t think I would ever return to Taiwan.” 

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