Eight Hongkongers who are allegedly victims of a widespread human trafficking job scam in Myanmar still cannot be found, Hong Kong authorities said on Thursday.
The news comes amidst growing concern over such scams, which lure victims to Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos with promises of lucrative job opportunities, only for them to be detained and forced to engage in illegal work.
Under Secretary for Security Michael Cheuk told reporters on Thursday that from January to today (Aug. 18), the Hong Kong Police and Immigration Department have received requests for assistance for 20 Hong Kong residents related to the scams.
He added that 12 are confirmed to be safe, out of which 10 have returned to Hong Kong.
However, Cheuk said that authorities have not been able to identify the exact location of the remaining eight.
He also said they claimed that they are still in Myanmar.
The undersecretary said a task force, composed of members from the Security Bureau, police and the Immigration Department, has been set up and is following up on the remaining cases.
He added the task force will continue to maintain close contact with the victims’ families, the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong, and the local Chinese Embassy or Consulate General to follow up on each case.
He also said that the police’s organized crime and triad bureau has taken over the investigations and is maintaining close contact with the law enforcement agencies in different jurisdictions through the INTERPOL platform to exchange intelligence and assist investigations.
“Our top priority at the moment is to try to secure their safe return. We will use our channels to communicate with appropriate authorities and try to assist,” he said.
Cheuk said authorities received the first request for assistance for such scams in January this year. The number of requests remained few in numbers until the past three months, when there was a rise in cases, authorities added.
The Immigration Department noted the 20 who needed assistance are currently or were in the four countries.
Police said that the alleged victims are or were being controlled by organizations in the countries and asked to conduct online scams. Hence, they were able to access their smartphones and could get help from their friends and family in Hong Kong.
The force also said that they could not reveal the amount the victims are or were being held ransom for as it would affect operations.
‘They don’t see any hope.’
Earlier in the day, former district councilor Andy Yu said on a program on Commercial Radio that he had received calls for assistance for two men in their 20s from their family and friends on Wednesday.
He said he was told the two were scammed by acquaintances into working in Myanmar in the infamous KK Park, which is reportedly a hub for human trafficking operations on the border of the country.
The former district councilor said the last time their friends and family were in touch with them was on Monday.
“The situation is bad,” he said, adding the two have been imprisoned.
Yu said he was told the two have to earn a certain amount of money through scamming others in order to pay the ransom to obtain their freedoms. Alternatively, they could pay a ransom of more than HK$100,000 (US$12,749), which their families might not be able to afford.
“From what I heard, [the perpetrators] did not withhold food from them or assault them, but their emotional states are not so good. They have thought of committing suicide as they don’t see any hope,” Yu said.
He added that one of the residents of his district was scammed out of more than HK$10,000 to invest in cryptocurrency by one of the men, who then told the resident about his plight in Myanmar. This was how Yu found out about one of the victim’s situation.
The former district councilor said the victims only have occasional access to their smartphones when they are allowed to use them in order to contact people to scam.
He added that one of the two victims is still in KK Park while another is being trafficked to another place.
Yu said the family and friends of the two victims reported what had happened to the Hong Kong Police back in June, shortly after they left for Myanmar.
He also said that the friends and family have not received any news from the police for the past two plus months.
Yu said there is a human rights group assisting the victims and it has located where they are. The group has also contacted the Security Bureau.
Cheuk appealed to Hong Kong residents not to trust online recruitment advertisements or comments lightly and to guard against claims of ways to earn quick money and jobs offering extraordinarily high remuneration with no specific requirements for academic qualification or working experience.
He added that one of the alleged victims had fallen for an online romance scam.
“You’ve got to ask why the online date will ask you to go [to the country],” he said, adding that one should discuss with friends and family before setting off.
Cheuk said authorities have started doing some promotion work in the airport to remind people going to Southeast Asia not to fall for such scams.
The Security Bureau also issued a travel advisory for the four countries because of the matter.
He added that if anyone or someone they know is being targeted by such scams, they should contact authorities immediately.
Cheuk said Hong Kong residents traveling outside Hong Kong who need assistance may call the 24-hour hotline of the assistance to Hong Kong residents unit of the Immigration Department at +852 1868, call the 1868 hotline by network data call via the Immigration Department mobile application or submit the online assistance request form.
Many more from around the world are believed to still be trapped in such scams, with some estimates in the thousands in just Cambodia. Some reports said such victims have been tortured, sexually assaulted and threatened with organ harvesting.