Once a financial securities analyst in China, Lu Xiangri never imagined he might be a victim of trafficking and enslavement by Chinese cyber-scam operations in Cambodia.
Arriving in the Southeast Asian country in September 2020, the 32-year-old dreamed of starting his own business. To learn the ropes, he offered to help manage a friend’s restaurant in the capital, Phnom Penh. His friend was from the same village in China. Lu had watched him become wealthy, buying a big house and living well. He wanted the same for himself and his family - his parents, wife and two-year-old son.
But in 2021 COVID-19 hit hard, and the restaurant closed. Lu was stranded in Cambodia without a job, unable to afford the escalating airfares and quarantine expenses to get him home.
That is when a regular diner offered him a job he would quickly regret accepting.
“He said I just needed to analyse the securities market for clients and that the salary would be more than $1,500 a month. I thought I just needed to work for two months to go back to China,” Lu tells Al Jazeera with a somewhat bemused smile.
When he arrived for his first day of work, Lu discovered it was a scam operation and, worse still, when he tried to leave, he was told he could not. The reason? He’d been sold to the company for $12,000 and was now theirs until he paid the money back in full.
Jake Sims, Cambodia director of the human rights NGO International Justice Mission (IJM), says cases of trafficking and enslavement are not uncommon. “There are thousands of people in Cambodia being forced to work in scamming compounds,” he says.
Spread throughout the country, scamming compounds are found in casinos, hotels, resorts, residential developments and office complexes. Their distinguishing features are bars on windows and balconies and barbed wire fortifying surrounding fences. With tight security placed at every entrance, they are impenetrable to anyone other than the criminal syndicates that run them.
Sims and his team have been working to assist the rescue of dozens of foreign nationals – Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Malaysians, people from Myanmar, and others from further afield - entrapped in cyber-scam operations in the country.
“They’re constantly reporting that there are armed guards preventing them from leaving the building. So, we know there’s confinement going on,” Sims explains.
“There are reports of people being beaten. They're told if they call the police that they're going to get beaten. They're threatened to be sold at what appear to be marketplaces where humans are sold for thousands of dollars to conduct these scamming operations.”
Horrifying videos and photographs of atrocities inside scam companies began surfacing on the internet in mid-2021. They show people being physically threatened, beaten with large sticks, struck with electric batons in front of other workers or while handcuffed to iron bed frames, their faces contorted in agony, their bodies covered in bleeding wounds.
In one video a man cowers in a corner of a room, spreading his hands across his head desperately trying to protect it from blows from a baton, his captor threatening to cut off his hands if his family does not pay the company $3,000 within hours. Extortion appears to be one of the methods of abuse used by the criminal syndicates against victims who refuse to become scammers.
In another online video, a young Thai woman sobs as she cries out for help: “I am scared that one day they will kill me.”
During months of investigation, Al Jazeera spoke to more than a dozen victims in Cambodia, China, Thailand and more recently Malaysia, who escaped from Cambodian cyber-scam operations and allege their captors are committing atrocities. We have given them pseudonyms to protect their identities.