October 06, 2022
After working for a couple of years in Rajbari as a data entry operator for the Election Commission (EC), Masum BellhA (sic) became unemployed when the contract was over.
Desperately in need of a job, he came to know through an agent that he could earn $1,000 per month from working as a data entry officer in Cambodia.
While sitting in his office titled ‘B Brother’ in Mohakhali, Nasiruddin, the agent, explained to Masum that they will send him to Cambodia on a business visa, since work visas are not available there.
A work visa would be provided once he starts the job. But everything depended on him passing an interview that would be taken by Sazzad Al Faisal – Nasir’s ‘man’ in Cambodia.
“Faisal conducted a short interview on WhatsApp. Since I worked in EC before, I had experience. He selected me,” Masum said.
He sealed the deal with Nasiruddin for Tk400,000. He arrived in Cambodia on 23 May. After a couple of days of staying at a guest house in Phnom Penh, Faisal took him to Sihanoukville, a coastal city in Cambodia.
“He said that there are many casinos in Sihanoukville and my job will be normal office work. There will be a small interview and I will be selected,” Masum said, adding, “I was relieved, and happy.”
On the morning of the interview at a casino in Sihanoukville, a “Chinese” man entered the room and asked him about his typing speed, and some other basic questions. Masum was easily selected.
He stayed for several days in the company office room along with a few other Bangladeshis, all of whom went there through the same process but different agents.
A company officer finally explained the job to them.
“The job was to create fake female Facebook profiles, flirt with older men and leave an impression that I am a rich girl, in order to lure them to invest $100 on a platform called Ababa. The deal was that if you invest $100, you will get $200,” Masum explained his job to us, adding, “our job was to trap them saying that the investment will double in a month.”
What started with hope soon turned into a nightmare. It did not take Masum and his fellow Bangladeshis long to understand that this company was running cyber scams.
Several days went by and as they feared, they failed to attract any customers. The employer, infuriated at their failure, ordered them to ask their friends and family in Bangladesh to invest. But here too, no one trusted them.
The instruction, however, was clear – if they did not find any customer, they would not get any salary.
Masum realised that he was wasting his time. He told the casino people that he would quit, but this only infuriated them more.
They asked him to call his agent and take him back after paying them $3,600.
“That was when I came to know that Faisal had actually sold me here,” Masum said. He called Faisal to take him back and get him another job as he had promised in case this job did not work out.
But instead, Masum’s request made Faisal angry.
“Who asked you to be so oversmart? I asked you if you wanted to do this job when they selected you,” Faisal told Masum.
“I told Faisal that you did not tell me what the job was or that you sold me there. Faisal said now that you know, so what? Go and start working!” Masum said.
Other Bangladeshis who called their agents received similar responses. “Some were told they will be beaten up or even murdered if they do not comply with the company,” he shared with us.
“The agents had submitted our passports to the company and took $3,600 for each of us. So the company would not leave us without them showing up,” Masum said, adding, “but then Faisal stopped receiving my calls. And if he did, he would call me names and threaten me.”
Sensing an imminent danger when the company said they would sell him to another place, Masum called his family in Bangladesh to send Faisal $3,600 so that he would release him. After Faisal received the money, he showed up and secured his release.
“On the day I left the company premises, the company officials formatted my phone and deleted my social media accounts before throwing my passport at my face. But the moment I got my passport back, Faisal seized it.”
Back in Faisal’s place, before Masum would fly back to Bangladesh on 27 June, he forcefully recorded a video of Masum smilingly admitting that he is returning from Cambodia at his own will. Faisal returned the passport only after he agreed to give him that confession.
Back in Bangladesh, Masum is now burdened with around seven lakhs in debt. But he has not filed a case against the agents yet because he is not sure if that would do him any good for “Faisal has a record of me saying I am leaving the country at my own will.”
Masum was actually one of the lucky ones to return to Bangladesh safely, and fast.
A similar pattern of scams
We talked to several other victims like Masum who fell into similar traps in Cambodia, and some who are still trapped in that country. According to NGO sources, over 1,000 Bangladeshis went to Cambodia in the last few years.
One of them, Shamim Reza from Chapainawabganj, was sold for the same amount ($3,600) to a company that conducted the exact same scam.
“I was told that my job would be a normal office job that required the knowledge of Microsoft Excel. But they asked me to scam people instead,” Shamim said.
“When I refused to do that, my agent in Cambodia Shovon Ahmed began to spread all kinds of ugly rumours about me. They tortured me, more mentally than physically. They threatened me with electrocution or that only my dead body would return to Bangladesh,” he said.
His agent Shovon released him only after he paid him Tk100,00 more to free him from the scammer company. He did not have to pay the entire $3,600 because Shovon replaced him at the casino with another Bangladeshi worker.
Shamim returned to Bangladesh last month.
Another former Bangladeshi school teacher is still at a loss and wandering the Phnom Penh streets for his agent is not returning his passport. He is unable to come back to Bangladesh where his family is spending days in hunger.
A victim of a similar scam, he tried to lure in customers for a few months only to fail miserably. He also did not get any salary and eventually quit.
Mentally and physically tortured, during an interview with The Business Standard, he began to cry about how the landlord is about to evict his family because they cannot pay the rent, and he does not know when he can return to Bangladesh.
“I have begged my agent to return my passport so I can go back to Bangladesh, but he is not giving it back to me,” he said.
TBS is not revealing his name or the name of his agent for he feared it could get him in more trouble.
TBS traced several such Bangladeshis stuck in Cambodia who requested not to reveal their names, fearing their safety.
Above the law?
Requesting anonymity, a reputed Bangladeshi businessman in Cambodia, shared with us, “It is a horrible situation here. They bring the workers tempting them with $1,000 salaries and computer-based jobs. They take a couple of thousand dollars to bring them here. And then they sell them for $2,000 to $3,000 to casinos, where the workers are imprisoned for at least six months. These workers are viciously tortured in these casinos.” He added that the authorities are not completely unaware of the situation.
In case you are wondering why these Bangladeshis are not going to Cambodia police, you should watch the latest Al Jazeera documentary titled ‘Forced to Scam: Cambodia’s Cyber Slaves’ to understand how reporting to the Cambodian police can get you in a more dangerous situation as they have connections with the scammers.
Around a dozen returnees from Cambodia whom we spoke to have not yet filed cases. Some feel the culprits are beyond the reach of the law, while some are trying to get their money back from the agents before taking the matter to the court.
For example, Mohorom Islam from Pabna and several of his cousins gave more than 10 lakh taka to one of their relatives. They went to Cambodia through an agency named Mashallah Overseas located in the Dainik Bangla area.
Since returning from Cambodia, they have been trying to get their money back from that relative. But she is now using her political influence to silence them.
We reached out to Masum BellhA’s agent Nasiruddin and his said Cambodian representative Faisal. Nasir did not respond to our calls. Faisal texted us back despite declining our calls, “If you want to do any story, write the truth, nothing false. Otherwise, I will take proper actions.”
We reached out to Shamim Reza’s agent Shovon Ahmed who also did not respond.
Minister promises steps
So how are so many Bangladeshi migrant workers landing in cyber scams and slavery in Cambodia – a country that is economically similar to Bangladesh? We reached out to the foreign affairs ministry, BMET and migration experts to shed more light on the issue.
Fahad Pervez, First Secretary (Labour) of Bangladesh Embassy in Thailand, said, “The Bangladeshi workers who are getting scammed in Cambodia are not going there with the attestation of the embassy; they are illegal migrants.”
“If they took the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET) smart card or embassy attestation, we could check into the companies they are going to work for. I doubt they are taking the cards. The embassy can only act when they seek our help or they come to our attention,” he said.
“We are doing our job when someone complains to us. When a person is sold, it is very difficult to retrieve her/him. The Chinese companies are buying these workers with money and their facilities are secured like prisons,” Fahad said.
When asked if they are aware of the Bangladeshi agents who are selling the Bangladeshi workers to these Chinese companies, he replied, “They are not in the scene. Sometimes the victims send us mere names, but it is very difficult to search for people only with names because these people do not have manpower companies or anything there. The manpower companies who take attestation from the embassy, I have not received allegations against them.”
The victims that we interviewed, however, were reached again to know if they received a smart card from the BMET that the first secretary mentioned. All five of the workers we asked about it said that they had it.
This time we called, emailed, and texted to BMET DG Shahidul Alam NDC and Jakir Hossan (Director of Admin & Finance who, some sources told us, takes care of the Cambodia affairs for BMET) to know if BMET issued the smart cards without the attestation of the embassy, they did not respond to our queries.
We also reached out to Shahriar Alam, State Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh.
He said, “I remember about four years ago, some people went to Cambodia and that took me by surprise (since) the economic situation (of Cambodia) is pretty similar to ours. Later, I came to know that there are some garment factories, and some workers went there to work in garment factories. That made sense to me.”
“But since then we have not received any complaints. No one reported such complaints to me, or it did not come to my notice,” the minister said.
However, he added that they will definitely take steps if they receive any complaints.
“We always say that no one should go abroad without consulting the BMET or the Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment. No recent incidents in Cambodia have caught our attention, but if you have specific information, share it with us, we will take steps,” he said.
Shariful Hasan, head of Brac Migration, said, “We have seen in the last few years, especially prior to the pandemic and afterwards, a ring has emerged that are defrauding people in the name of hiring migrant workers in Cambodia and Vietnam.”
He said some (who are going to Cambodia) are even aware that such incidents may happen. Nonetheless, it is important for a migrant worker to check where s/he is going, the salary, if the company is genuine, check the visa etc.
“This information is not hard to find out. Secondly, law enforcement agencies of both countries can work together to uncover this ring. In that case, the number of frauds will be reduced. It is not yet out of control I think, but if we cannot take preventive measures, more people may get defrauded,” he opined.
Since the workers are going to Cambodia via undocumented ways, there is no definite number of how many are going this way. “But we think the number has crossed a thousand as we often see these incidents,” said Shariful.
Bangladesh / Cambodia / Human Traffficking
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Sold in Cambodia: How Bangladeshis are lured into slavery – The Business Standard