Written by Yi-hsiang Shih.
Human trafficking is nothing new to the world, yet, the term certainly receives much more attention than ever in 2022 Taiwan.
Human trafficking involves serious human rights violations. When someone becomes a victim of human trafficking, the perpetrators control every aspect of their life. One would be deceived by false information, fall into a situation where one cannot freely choose a job, and be deprived of fundamental labour rights. Human trafficking criminal groups would also entirely block the victims from accessing important basic human rights, such as the right to liberty and security of person, freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, right to healthcare, etc. The three most common forms of exploitation involved in human trafficking are labour exploitation, sexual exploitation, and organ removal.
For the Taiwanese, human trafficking is usually associated with sexual exploitation and labour exploitation of migrants and migrant workers from Southeast Asian countries. The U.S. State Department releases the Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) every summer; as for the part addressing Taiwan, it particularly emphasizes the extremely harsh working conditions of distant-sea fishers, which is equivalent to modern slave labour. Additionally, the Report highlights that many domestic caretakers are at risk of sexual harassment and exploitation in employers’ households.
Taiwanese people generally do not see themselves as victims of human trafficking. However, the cases of human trafficking in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, suddenly received extensive attention in 2022. Many of the victims in these cases were characterized as young people in Taiwan under low wages and unstable jobs and whose economic life had been affected by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic since early 2020. To survive, these young people are easily lured by relatives and friends or false job information and become the main target for criminal groups. They are often deceived into working at the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (the scamming compounds) in Cambodia, eventually becoming “commodities” exploited by human trafficking groups. Many victims who managed to escape testified that they had been violently treated, electrocuted, and sexually assaulted, and their passports were confiscated in the scamming compounds. In addition, the victims of human trafficking are often resold over again as commodities. It is believed that many who disappeared and could not be rescued back to Taiwan highly likely already had their organs harvested and died in the scamming compounds. The conditions of these victims fit well with the ILO’s 11 indicators of forced labour, including abuse of vulnerable situations, deception, restriction of movement, isolation, physical and sexual violence, intimidation, and threats, withholding of identity documents, withholding of wages, bonded labour, harsh working and living conditions, working overtime, among others.
Why and how did Cambodia become a “hot human traffic place” for the Taiwanese in 2022? The serious problems of human trafficking in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, in 2022 is a continuation of the online gaming industry that used to be active in China, the Philippines, Taiwan and related countries a few years ago. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cross-border movements were restricted, causing many online gaming operators in the Philippines to fall into depression.
In addition, Chinese operators have been the main financial owners in this industry, but the Chinese government has strictly cracked down on the gaming industry since 2020. Therefore, to survive, Chinese financiers transferred their industries to the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone and KK Park in Myanmar, turning the original gaming industry into an industry operating online fraud. Additionally, business activities in Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone and the KK Park are more difficult for the Chinese government to track and suppress. During the booming period of the online gaming industry, young people in Taiwan used to work as technical personnel, such as online customer service staff, software engineers, and web designers, in the industry due to the temptation of high salaries. Taiwanese gangs were also closely associated with the Chinese online gaming industry. With the decline of this industry, Taiwanese gangs have turned their direction toward becoming the promoters of Cambodian human trafficking, who are responsible for fraudulently recruiting the workforce and have thus gained many benefits from it.
From the experience of many human trafficking victims, vulnerability and movement across borders are common characteristics. For example, the criminal groups in the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, in which China mainly capitalizes, take advantage of the victims’ weaknesses, who are essentially propelled to work there by difficult economic situations. To pursue a better life, they are forced to “choose” to move across borders and take great risks to pay labour in unknown countries under the misinformation. Consequently, in many cases, the moment they land in a new country and get off the plane, their travel documents are confiscated, and their movements are controlled. Only then do they realize that they have become victims of human trafficking, but then, it is already too late.
In the case of human trafficking in the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone, we often see collusions between the government, business groups, and organized and powerful criminal groups. The criminal groups use coercion, debt bondage, fraud, and other means to attract defrauded people to the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone through the network of family relatives and friends of the victims. Even if one seeks assistance from the local police, likely, nothing would actually happen as the Cambodian government and police have long been corrupted and become an accomplice of criminal groups. After the police tip off the information to criminal groups, the victims would once again fall into the situation of being monopolized or even moved to a third country, such as Myanmar, and have since been trapped in “human trafficking.”
Although the number of cases in the Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone seems to have decreased significantly after Taiwan and Cambodian governments actively intervened, human trafficking did not cease. In addition, there have been recent domestic cases in Taiwan where people were trafficked and tortured to death by criminal groups. These are just yet another example denoting that the problems have not been completely resolved. Therefore, going back to the central reasons why people fall into the trap of human trafficking, how to provide young people in Taiwan with more stable employment opportunities, how to prevent them from becoming economically disadvantaged, and how to build a sound social safety net may be important questions to consider to truly reduce similar human trafficking cases.
Yi-hsiang Shih, the current Secretary-General of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, was enlightened in 2005 when he went to the Philippines to conduct a fact-finding mission on the human rights massacre at Hacienda Luisita. He has been working as a human rights worker for more than ten years now. Issues he focuses on include transitional justice, international human rights conventions, migrant workers and foreign fishermen, and Human Rights Responsibilities of Businesses.
This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Farewell 2022 and Welcome 2023’.