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.
On July 10, a 24-year-old woman named Pippi (pseudonym) boarded a flight from Phnom Penh to Taipei after fleeing what had been seven days of hell in Cambodia — the most terrifying experience of her life.
Pippi had been traveling in the Philippines at the end of June when she was lured to a Cambodian group specializing in international fraud after a fellow Taiwanese citizen offered to set her up with a high-paying job on a social media site.
Pippi agreed to take the job and flew to Cambodia, where she was met at the airport in Phnom Penh at 2 a.m. on June 25 by a large Taiwanese man, who took her to a hotel.
“After I arrived in Phnom Penh, my passport was confiscated, and the person who introduced me immediately ‘blocked’ me [on their phone]. Only then did I realize that I might have been deceived.”
The man urged Pippi to rest, while he secretly contacted the trafficking ring that would trade her. She was awoken at 7 a.m. by two local handlers and before she knew what had happened, she was on her way to the so-called “Fraud Park” of Sihanoukville.
Over the course of the following week, Pippi was sold four different times. She said four members of the trafficking rings subjected her to routine abuse, including electrocution and sexual assault.
“It was Taiwanese who sold Taiwanese,” Pippi told RFA in an interview from Taipei.
“They told me that I had been sold. Then they demanded that I help them trick the next person into coming to Sihanoukville for their company. If I didn’t do it, they said they would beat me or sell me to another ring.”
Pippi was held by the trafficking ring in a special economic zone in southwestern Cambodia’s Sihanouk province, which is home to the country’s largest port, the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port.
Repeatedly sold and abused
The industrial park where Pippi was held is called “Huangsha Park,” a complex of commercial buildings, hotels, and entertainment centers. Video footage she claimed to have shot from a window in the room where she was detained appears to show buildings under construction, unfinished shacks, and a lot overgrown with weeds.
Huangsha Park offers “external” and “internal” security for its tenants – the former being armed guards posted at the entrances and exits of buildings in the complex, and the latter being muscle for trafficking rings that want to send a message to their enemies, Pippi said. Most of the rings operating out of industrial parks in Cambodia have established good relations with local authorities, making it difficult for anyone to get far if they’ve managed to escape the complex.
Pippi told RFA that she was sold for U.S. $25,000 to members of a trafficking ring who shocked her with stun batons when she refused to obey orders. That same evening, she was sold for the same amount to members of another trafficking ring who sexually assaulted her before selling her to a third ring for $28,000 two days later.
Lastly, she was sold for $27,000 to members of a fourth ring, the leader of which ordered her to “kill pigs,” or scam people into sending money on dating sites. Pippi said she was given a 35-page “Scam Manual,” which included scripts used to convince people to invest in virtual currency through dating software. The manual also provided information on how to use foreign tourism, such as South African safaris, to find potential victims.
When Pippi again refused to obey, her fourth captor withheld food and water from her and raped her, she said. The fourth gang failed to confiscate Pippi’s cell phone, however, and she was able to post a message to social media that included photos of injuries to her hands from beatings and a call for help. Pippi’s sister also notified the emergency contact center of Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“By the fourth time [I was sold], I was unable to utter a word. They probably thought I was mentally ill,” Pippi recalled weakly.
She told RFA that the fourth ring “didn’t bother” to take her phone and passport because they intended to sell her to a fifth ring. Pippi was able to contact a Taiwanese YouTuber who brought her situation to the attention of multinational humanitarian organizations. After being informed of Pippi’s whereabouts, the provincial government ordered local police to the industrial park to rescue her.
After graduating from a higher vocational college in Taiwan, Pippi originally worked as a fitness coach and in the medical field. She unexpectedly became pregnant at the age of 21 and gave birth to a daughter who she struggled to raise alone. Amid coronavirus shutdown restrictions, Pippi lost her job and began to look overseas for opportunities to earn money fast, which put her at risk of exploitation by trafficking rings.
In June, through the introduction of a friend, Pippi contacted a Taiwanese agent known as “Luo Luo” on a WeChat account. The agent first suggested working at a hotel and told Pippi, “My biggest responsibility is to keep you safe and make you money.” The transcript of the conversation also said, “We don’t confiscate passports, require signed contracts, or disturb your private life,” and then put forward a U.S. $25,000 “promissory note” with a photo of a youthful Chinese man.
Because the agent was also Taiwanese, Pippi let down her guard and allowed herself to be led, step by step, into the trap of human trafficking. When Pippi arrived in Sihanoukville, Luo Luo and her friends were no longer in contact.
Pippi wasn’t the only young victim. Many of the victims targeted are those who have been marginalized in their primary job market, burdened with debt, anxious about economic security, or want to make a fast pile of cash, sources said.
When Pippi returned to Taiwan, she had to take sleeping pills just to fall asleep. Sometimes she still dreams of being electrocuted at night. When she goes out to meet up with friends, she takes sedatives to calm down. She tries to avoid meeting with men alone, terrified that the same nightmare will happen again.
“I’ve been lied to so many times and now I can’t trust anyone,” she said.
But Pippi didn’t want to only be a victim. Once she returned home, she worked hard to find a job, went to the gym every day, and sought counseling, hoping to return to a normal life as soon as possible. However, she remains so anxious that she can’t sleep at night or wakes up crying.
She said she felt compelled to tell her story through social media to warn others, even it results in her being attacked online or called naïve. Later, she recounted her story at a press conference held by Taiwanese lawmakers.
“I don’t want other people to suffer the same trauma as I did,” Pippi said, explaining why she came forward.
While she heals from her traumatic experience, Pippi continues to speak out on the dangers of human trafficking and regularly reports news and information on victims to NGOs.
“My dad said, it’s okay if you can’t do anything well, just don’t cheat, don’t steal, and be a good person,” she said.
“I’ve been through it, and although I’m not an influential figure, I think I can at least contribute to society.”