If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. That was the message from Kenya’s foreign affairs ministry when it warned job seekers who were attracted by the promise of greener pastures in south-east Asia.
It follows the rescue of more than 60 Kenyans from Myanmar and Laos over the last few months – after the sales and customer service jobs they applied for in Thailand turned out to be a cover for cyber-crime, prostitution and even organ theft.
“Already one young Kenyan has died as a result of a botched operation by quack doctors operating in the Chinese-run factories in Myanmar,” the ministry said last week.
I spoke to two women about their recent experiences. Requesting anonymity, a 31-year-old, who has a a diploma in hotel management, and a 35-year-old high school graduate told me how they had left for jobs in Thailand in August with a promise of a monthly salary of $800 (£675).
A month before their departure they each had borrowed nearly $2,000 to pay their agents for the trip and underwent a short training session.
Yet upon arrival in Thailand their handlers took them on a long journey by road, eventually crossing a river into neighbouring Laos.
They ended up in a 15-storey building, which became their full-time residence – although they did not know in which town or city they were located.
It was here they learnt that instead of customer service roles, they were there to engage in cyber-crime activities – namely to target Americans by creating enticing profiles on Tinder, Instagram and Facebook.
“They fall in love with you and you can tell them about crypto-currency. You start stealing from them,” the 31-year-old woman said, describing in Swahili how they were both forced to work in a vast call centre-like hall with hundreds of others made up of a variety of nationalities.
Neither of them received their promised salary and instead were threatened with sex work or organ harvesting if they failed to lure enough victims online.
“As a woman you may be forced into sex trafficking. If that does not work they may harvest your organs and sell them to refund their costs,” she explained, her companion assenting as she spoke.
“They told us: ‘You must pay 1.2m Kenyan shillings ($10,000) to buy your freedom because we own you.”
Luckily the pair managed to make online contact with Awareness Against Human Trafficking (Haart), a Kenyan charity that helps migrants in trouble, and they were eventually rescued and flown home with the help of UN and Kenyan authorities.
Their story matches that of other Kenyans held in what the foreign ministry has called “fraud factories” and “forced labour camps” where “their passports are normally confiscated and remain under the custody of the criminal gang”.
It said even though many of the recruitment agents were wanted by the police, they were still advertising non-existent jobs in Thailand and Kenyans continued to fall prey to the scams.
Some of those rescued had returned home on crutches with broken limbs “after being severely beaten by up to 20 gang members operating in the factories”.
According to the latest foreign ministry statement, some of the Kenyans in Myanmar appear to be in Kachin state, where rebel separatists are fighting the military – something that was hampering rescue efforts.
“Recent army operations killed over 60 people in the area controlled by rebel groups, who provide protection to the Chinese cartels,” the ministry warned.
In total 76 victims, including 10 Ugandans and one Burundian, have been repatriated since August with the help of officials at Kenya’s embassy in Thailand.
It is young and educated Africans who were being targeted by the cartels as they are considered best to able to undertake the cybercrime work.
This points to the dire lack of employment opportunities on the continent and how successive governments promise jobs to their people but fail to deliver.
The African Development Bank estimates that while more than 12 million young people enter the workforce in Africa each year, only three million formal jobs are created annually.
According to research by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 80% of Africans who leave the continent – especially those heading towards Europe – do so looking for work.
Those who are lucky enough to find jobs are able to send money home to support family members.
Yet all too frequently they end up in difficult situations. The revelations of the south-east Asia job scams follow continuing reports of the mistreatment of African migrants in the Middle East.
The two young women I spoke to are now left with huge debts – and are in a worse situation than they were five months ago.
The 35-year-old has found work in a hair salon, but her companion has yet to find another job.