This is the first of a two-part series on the Malaysians who fell for job or love scams and were trafficked to Myanmar.
MAE SOT, THAILAND/KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) – The tiny and sombre young woman in the red long-sleeved blouse – one of only two she had with her – hung back while her three towering male friends laughed boisterously and talked animatedly outside a restaurant in the border town of Mae Sot, Thailand.
The group of young adults – their ages ranging from 19 to 25 – had reason to be joyful. A few days before on Feb 3, they were rescued from KK Garden, located on the Myanmar side of the Myanmar-Thai border. KK Garden’s giant compound has been making the news lately as the base for several scamming centres where hundreds of trafficked Malaysians were reportedly forced to work as online scammers.
Nur Fitriani Abdullah, more commonly known as Fi, remained largely quiet throughout dinner, answering questions posed to her politely but did not volunteer any extra information. It took several meetings before she finally warmed up enough to smile and talk.
Coming from a broken home, the 19-year-old told Bernama she was used to being on her own. The diminutive Batu Pahat native has been forced to support herself since her grandfather, who had been her guardian, passed away over a year ago. His death also forced her to drop out of school without sitting for her Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia examination.
So when she saw a Facebook advertisement looking for Malaysians to work in housekeeping at a hotel in Singapore for US$1,100 (RM4,923), it seemed like an answer to her prayers.
“(Because of) Singapore and the big salary, I thought okay, I can try doing this job. I decided to go on my own. If okay, then I would ask my boyfriend to join me,” she said.
Instead, her 25-year-old boyfriend Kamil Abdul Hamid decided to come along. Without a passport, she and Kamil were smuggled into Thailand across the Golok River and then the Moei River that runs between Myanmar and Thailand in mid-September 2022.
Her tale largely echoes that of others from Malaysia and other countries who ended up in Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar after answering fraudulent job advertisements or love appeals online.
While job or love scams and the trafficking of people falling for them are not a new problem, the methods used and locations of the victims and victimisers have changed with the times. With the advent of social media and digital technology and COVID-19 pandemic restrictions creating more desperate people, job scams and trafficking have become worse.
And experts say there is little sign of this illicit activity stopping, making the masterminds rich with little risk and leaving many victims traumatised and in worse straits.
Malaysia is one of several transit points for human trafficking in Southeast Asia. Where Malaysia used to be a country of destination for trafficked migrant workers and asylum-seekers, it is now becoming a country of origin for trafficking.
The Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific at the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) spokesman Itayi Viriri told Bernama that job scams and trafficking of victims have changed beyond the usual established recruitment methods and corridors.
“The kind of numbers we are seeing now and the diversity of the nationalities of the victims, that is completely unprecedented. In fact, we don’t think we have seen that kind of trafficking set up ever before. We think that also says something about the way social networks and online media can be used,” he told Bernama in an email.
Cambodia and Laos used to be the favourite spots for these syndicates but they seem to be losing their lustre in favour of Myanmar. News reports have pegged the troubled ASEAN state, which is suffering from lawlessness and civil strife following the military coup in 2021 and decades-old separatist movements, as the new favourite.
The profiles of victims have also changed. Where syndicates used to target poor and low-skilled workers for the fishery and agriculture industries, now they are recruiting those with some education, Internet-savviness and some skills in English and/or Chinese.
“The way that they choose countries to traffic (victims), it isn’t based on the Asian region, it’s based on English education. It’s English education and Chinese language. They want Chinese translation and English (writers) to run online scams. Malaysians have strong English compared to other countries like Thailand, which has none,” said Judah Tana, founder and international executive officer of Australian charity Global Advance Projects.
The US State Department, non-governmental organisations and other experts claim many of the crime syndicates and organised crime elements are from or involve people associated with China. Their middle management tends to be from the same countries as the victims, which means there are Malaysians working willingly as supervisors.
Experts also say the Internet and transnational nature of the offence have made it harder to curb and bring scammers to justice, though not impossible.
Trafficking people who fall for the job and love scams follow a certain script, according to victims, activists and rescuers. It usually starts with a fraudulent job offer overseas that over-promises or an invitation to chat online with a pretty and receptive girl.
Once hooked, the victim meets up with the recruiter/scammer either locally and is smuggled across the border or receives money or a plane ticket to fly into a transit country. In this case, it is Thailand.
Often, the promised job is elsewhere. Victims only find out the destination has changed after they have embarked on their journey.
Once in Thailand, someone from the company meets the victims and confiscates their passports. Along the journey to the company site, guards keep a close watch on the victims, changing cars and guards every few hours. Security becomes tighter.
The chance to run away diminishes with every step of the way. Victims have reported wanting to escape but were too scared or did not know how and from whom to seek help.
When they reach their final destination – KK Garden in Myawaddy for Fi and friends – they receive their job description, which is to scam people online. If they want to leave, their new “employers” tell them they have to pay the syndicate back the recruitment fees (believed to be RM10,000 per head) and transportation costs.
Fi was devastated when she found out she had been tricked.
“I was thinking, why didn’t they just tell us straight from the start, right? I really regret coming here. Because we know the work is illegal, we don’t want to do the job. But when they threatened me, I thought I would have to work or else I would not be able to leave,” she said.
The syndicate told her and Kamil they had to pay the company RM60,000 each. Her friends, Adam Iskandar Tukiman and Nur Akmar Hamsan, were told they owed the company RM40,000 each.
Their supervisor gave them targets to satisfy. Depending on how successful they were at scamming people, they got perks and cash. If they failed, they got punished with physical exercise.
Anyone who fought back would get beaten, tortured or locked in the isolation chamber. Other threats include being sold off for organ harvesting and thrown into Moei River, which is supposedly inhabited by crocodiles.
Fi said their supervisor would threaten to rape her to keep Kamil in line and to torture Kamil to keep her in line. The threats worked.
Experts say this is forced labour and debt bondage, manipulating and forcing victims to work to pay for the debt they supposedly accrued and for their freedom. The more successful they are, the shorter their stay is. Sometimes, victims turn victimisers as they become successful at scamming and receive lucrative rewards from the company.
Tana, who said he has helped rescue almost 100 trafficked victims, told Bernama the way the syndicates work on victims is almost like a brainwashing programme.
“You can’t say that (brainwashing) has not happened to them in some way, shape or form. That they decided it was okay and they can manage to stay there,” he said.
Fi, Kamil, Adam and Nur Akmar were rescued on Feb 3. Armed with information from Teruntum assemblyman Sim Chon Siang, a contingent from the Thai Army went into Myawaddy looking for them. Bangkok-based Malaysian businessman Victor Wong provided information on a fifth victim Lee Zhi Chong, who was also rescued.
Over a month later, Fi still feels guilt for falling for the scam, for agreeing to take Kamil along and for scamming people for money to save herself. Now, she tells people to be very careful when seeking riches overseas.
She and Kamil are no longer together. She told Bernama via WhatsApp that some of his family members blamed her for him getting trafficked.
“But I’m not hurt because it was my mistake in the first place even though I did not ask him to come along and he decided to come with me. But it’s okay, what happened happened. We need to move on and live our lives,” she said.