‘Dream jobs’ nightmare: how Hong Kong residents were scammed into travelling to Southeast Asia for forced labour
- Dozens found to have been lured to Myanmar, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries and held captive by criminals after falling for online job scams
- Scammers usually put adverts on social media, with promise of high salaries and few requirements for academic qualifications or experience
In one of the worst crises involving Hongkongers’ safety overseas in the past decade, dozens of residents were found to have been lured to Myanmar, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries and held captive by armed criminals.
In response, the Security Bureau established a high-powered group to follow up on the cases, and six suspects, aged 17 to 51, were arrested locally on Sunday and Monday. They included two alleged ringleaders, aged 23 and 30, who asked the other three to find victims by means such as posting bogus job adverts on social media. The 30-year-old was charged with conspiracy to defraud and appeared in court on Monday.
Here are the key points about the human-trafficking crisis and how authorities are dealing with it.
1. How many residents are being held captive and how big is this problem?
As of Monday, Hong Kong police said they had received 37 requests from people caught up in these scams, with 23 still trapped – 14 in Myanmar and nine in Cambodia. Twelve have returned to Hong Kong while two preferred to stay in the region “of their own will”. The 12th resident returned to Hong Kong from Thailand with the help of Beijing and Hong Kong authorities on Monday evening.
This was a jump from Saturday, when only 14 people were known to be held captive abroad. Police have yet to respond to a Post request for information on the whereabouts of the 22 residents.
2.Were people warned about such scams?
Local security officials only revealed they had received 17 requests for help from families of Hong Kong residents feared missing in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos last Wednesday. That followed mounting reports by Taiwanese media suggesting thousands of residents from the self-ruled island could have been lured into travelling to Southeast Asia in employment scams.
Asked why the government had not seized the chance to warn the public earlier when it had received requests for help as early as January, Undersecretary for Security Michael Cheuk Hau-yip said police had stepped up their reminders through social media upon receiving the reports.“Police produced videos warning people against overseas employment traps and broadcast them on Facebook,” he said.
A police source said law enforcement agencies had from time to time received reports about Hong Kong people going missing while travelling abroad, with various reasons possible, such as to escape debtors or telecommunication failure.
“Various regional crime units have been investigating since earlier this year, there was just no media attention at all,” he said.
In Hong Kong, the Security Bureau has established a high-level action group with senior police and immigration officers. The police source said that while the force’s liaison unit would contact Southeast Asian law enforcement agencies through Interpol, other officers would work with the internet crime unit to identify suspicious flight bookings, bank transactions or social media posts.
The government also introduced a new WhatsApp hotline, (852) 5190 8909, on top of another line to accept requests for help after the authorities were mocked online for urging the victims to fill in the form via the Immigration Department’s smartphone app.
The Chinese foreign ministry and its embassies have also been helping to contact the Southeast Asian governments for help and cooperation.