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China repatriates hundreds of scam factory survivors

Lewis Sanders IV | Julia Bayer | Julett Pineda | Yuchen Li
February 29, 2024

More than 1,000 victims of human trafficking have been freed from scam factories in Myanmar. The three-day operation comes after DW published an investigation exposing the brutal compounds and those behind it.

An aerial shot of the scam factory KK Park
KK Park, a scam factory on Myanmar's border with Thailand, where several of the human trafficking victims repatriated on Thursday were held captiveImage: Stefan Czimmek/DW

Authorities from China, Thailand and Myanmar on Thursday coordinated the release and transfer of 1,200 people who had been trapped in scam compounds in Myanmar, the vast majority of them Chinese nationals.

Flights chartered from China carrying the first group of 150 victims left from Mae Sot airport Thursday afternoon, according to flight data reviewed by DW's investigative unit.

Once in China, it is unclear whether those rescued from the scam compounds would be recognized as victims of human trafficking. But they face possible arrest if they are deemed to have traveled to the scam compounds willingly.

"Chinese scammers would be arrested, according to China's current regulations," a source involved in the negotiations for the victims' release told DW on the condition of anonymity.

A screenshot from an internal Thai security briefing shows how authorities will process human trafficking victims before they are placed on flights to China
A leaked image from a Thai security briefing shows how authorities will screen the human trafficking victims at Mae Sot airport before they embark on flights to ChinaImage:

Unveiling the perpetrators

The three-day operation comes a month after DW's investigative unit published a documentary unveiling the brutal conditions in one of the scam compounds in Myanmar's lawless east.

DW's investigative unit has spoken to several compound survivors, who detailed the inner workings of the scamming operations.

Inside the compounds, people trafficked from China, Southeast Asia and Africa are forced to scam unsuspecting victims in Europe, the US and China. They lure their targets into investing in fraudulent cryptocurrency schemes.

If they refuse to scam, they face torture, being sold, and even murder.

The process can take months of interaction by the scammer and often includes a romantic component to lure them into investing in fraudulent cryptocurrency schemes. They are described as "pig-butchering scams" because the process is likened to fattening a pig and slaughtering it when the victim has no more funds to invest.

DW's investigative unit unveiled how one of the most notorious scam compounds in the area, KK Park, links back to a vast transnational criminal network with ties to the 14K triad, a criminal organization based in Hong Kong.

Pig butchering scams launched from compounds across Southeast Asia generate more revenue than the local drug trade, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Satellite imagery of KK Park
Satellite imagery taken in January shows the size of KK Park, one of the scam compounds operating on Myanmar's border with ThailandImage: Maxar Technologies provided by European Space Imaging

Victim or scammer?

It is unclear what will happen to the remaining 200 human trafficking victims who are not Chinese nationals.

Many of them are from African countries, according to an NGO worker who attended a closed-door briefing by Thai law enforcement and requested anonymity for security purposes.

In Thailand, victims rescued from scam compounds are often presented with two options.

The first is to enter Thailand's burdened identification system to be recognized as a victim of human trafficking. The second is to turn themselves over to the police and declare themselves violators of Thailand's immigration laws.

If recognized as a victim of human trafficking, they are provided with food and housing until they are repatriated to their country of origin. If they fail to be recognized as a victim, they are instead held in a detention center for up to a year.

Watch DW's documentary Scam Factory: Inside Asia's Cyber Slavery to find out more.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

Scam Factory: Behind Asia's Cyber Slavery

DW's Julia Bayer smiles
Julia Bayer Investigative reporter exposing human rights abuses and environmental crimes.@bayer_julia