On the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, a dozen or so people wait in the whitewashed lobby of what used to be a budget hotel. The building has been turned into a safe house for people rescued from criminal gangs running online scams, and the gathering, on a Monday afternoon in November, is to welcome new arrivals.
They have escaped or been rescued from what are in effect scam sweatshops. The gangs that run them enslave people who are lured from China, and increasingly other countries, with promises of high-paying jobs. Upon arrival they are forced, under threat of violence, to defraud people online.
The hotel proprietor, Lee, drinks tea, smokes a cigarette and tallies up the thousands of dollars per week it’s costing to feed and accommodate the rising number of tenants. All are stuck in Cambodia as exorbitant airfares and the cost of complying with COVID rules currently make it essentially impossible to return to China.