human trafficking

OFWs trafficked into crypto scam, then ‘hostaged’ after rescue – Hontiveros

Michelle Abad
OFWs trafficked into crypto scam, then ‘hostaged’ after rescue – Hontiveros

RESCUED? A group of Filipinos, rescued by Cambodian police authorities on January 16, are held at a police station 'without beds and basic facilities,' according to Senator Risa Hontiveros.

Office of Senator Risa Hontiveros

With OFW trafficking reports in Myanmar and now Cambodia, the Department of Foreign Affairs says it is 'working on the repatriation of Filipino victims of illegal trafficking in Southeast Asia'

MANILA, Philippines – Senator Risa Hontiveros exposed a report of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) allegedly forced to participate in the cryptocurrency scam in Cambodia, later rescued by police, but were then made to stay at two police stations at least where they reported missing money, according to the senator’s reports as of Thursday, January 19.

Hontiveros first raised the issue in a Senate hearing on Wednesday, January 18. Filipinos were duped into working in Cambodia for a cryptocurrency scam, where they befriended victims before advising them to invest money into the scam.

One of the Filipinos known as “Miles” said that they were made to work up to 16 hours, seven days a week – especially if they could not get people to scam. Miles witnessed her co-worker get electrocuted by their reportedly Chinese employers.

In a video interview with Hontiveros’ office, Miles said she flew to Thailand and went to Cambodia via van in October 2022, and worked in Kep province. She returned to the Philippines on January 16, and reached out to Hontiveros as there were remaining Filipinos in Cambodia who needed to be rescued.

In November 2022, Hontiveros also exposed a report of OFWs trafficked to Myanmar to perform the same exact cryptocurrency scam. She alleged that a Chinese mafia was behind the operation.

The Filipinos, both in Myanmar and Cambodia, were lured out of the country through job offers on social media to be call center agents. Filipinos who went to Myanmar each paid Philippine immigration officers up to P20,000 to let them slip through.

Miles also spoke of an “escort” from Philippine immigration that allowed them easy travel to the dubious job destination.

In Myanmar, human trafficking hub forces Filipinos into crypto scam

In Myanmar, human trafficking hub forces Filipinos into crypto scam

On Wednesday, Hontiveros said that the Filipinos who were in Miles’ group had been rescued by Cambodian police on Monday, January 16, because of an intervention from the Philippine embassy in Phnom Penh.

However, as of Tuesday evening, January 17, “they are being held at a police station without beds and basic facilities.” Hontiveros said she wrote to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to facilitate their swift repatriation.

The DFA on Thursday said that it was working on the repatriation of OFWs who fell victim to human trafficking in Southeast Asia.

Missing money

On Thursday, Hontiveros released another video with an OFW called “Buddy,” who described the group of Filipinos’ experience moving from one police station to another after being rescued on Monday.

Buddy said that cops at Kampot Police Station asked about their situation with their Chinese employers. Police also asked if they had money, and the Filipinos said they had none. Buddy said the group had some money for their needs, but they were unsure how to to answer the question.

The police had them sleep in the same room they were interviewed, but their cell phones were taken from them overnight, Buddy said. The cell phones were returned in the morning, and the group was told to get ready to be transported via van to the Philippine embassy. Cops asked the group for gas money, and Buddy said they gathered around 100,000 Cambodian riel (around P1,327) to give to them.

Buddy said that two of the OFWs in the group discovered missing cash from their cell phone cases. One had “Kuwait money, Khmer money, and $10,” while the other lost $200. They made the missing money known to the cops, but brushed it off so they could leave.

The group was brought to a second police station near the Philippine embassy. Buddy said more OFWs discovered missing money amounting to hundreds of dollars from their wallets which were inside their bags.

Sinabi namin doon sa mga pulis na kasama namin na nawawala, ngunit ang kanilang sagot, noong tinanong daw po kami noong gabi sa Kampot Police Station kung may pera kami, sumagot daw po kami ng wala. ‘Yun lang po ang nangyari,” Buddy said.

(We told the police that we had missing cash, but their response to us was, when they asked us at Kampot Police Station if we had money, we said we didn’t have any. That’s what happened.)

Buddy said after Hontiveros’ office was informed of their situation, food and things they needed came “immediately.”

‘Outrage’

In a Thursday statement that accompanied the video of Buddy, Hontiveros said, “It is an outrage that those victimized by trafficking are hostages yet again by various constraints.”

The senator thanked the Philippine embassy for its interventions, but reiterated her call to the DFA to facilitate the speedy repatriation of the OFWs detained in Phnom Penh.

Hontiveros said she would raise the issue of the DFA’s Assistance to Nationals funding in the “next” Senate hearing.

“We have the funds, why are we not using them to save our citizens as quickly as possible? Kung may legal na gusot, hindi ba may legal assistance fund din na galing sa gobyerno para sa mga Pilipino sa labas ng bansa?” she said. (If there are legal issues, don’t we also have a legal assistance fund from the government as well for overseas Filipinos?)

Hontiveros also thanked the Filipinos in Cambodia her office reached out to, who helped give food, blankets, and other forms of help to the group of OFW survivors.

On Thursday, Foreign Undersecretary Eduardo de Vega said that the DFA was “aware” of the numerous cases of OFWs being promised non-existent jobs in certain countries, only to be forced to work in illegal operations like online scamming.

“The Department, through its embassies and in cooperation with local authorities, is working to bring home our nationals from places such as Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar,” the DFA said.

The DFA reiterated its call for Filipinos to be vigilant, and follow regular deployment procedures through the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) before accepting and leaving for jobs abroad.

The DMW has yet to issue a statement on the newest case of OFW trafficking to Cambodia for crypto scamming.

Immigration officials under investigation

On Tuesday, January 17, Bureau of Immigration Commissioner Norman Tansingco relieved two of the BI’s personnel following reports of their alleged involvement in trafficking activities at the Clark International Airport (CIA), and the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).

Miles had said she left the country through NAIA, while some other Filipinos she knew in Cambodia exited through the CIA.

“We have received information that the two have links to trafficking syndicates…. We are initiating an investigation to verify this information, and if there is indeed probable cause, we shall file the appropriate case before the Department of Justice,” said Tansingco.

The BI said that as a preventive measure, the two will be temporarily assigned to back-end office duties, pending the investigation.

“This is a continuing investigation and we will also look into the role of recruiters in these human trafficking activities. If there are names of recruiters that will come out from the investigation then we will refer it to the proper investigating agency under the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking,” said BI spokesperson Dana Sandoval.

Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla backed the BI’s investigation. “It is already under investigation even before several names came out,” he told reporters on Thursday.

“Fact-finding investigation about this human trafficking to Cambodia is ongoing. We haven’t stopped trying to find out and going to the bottom of the facts. We have to know how deep it went,” Remulla said. – with a report from Sofia Tomacruz/Rappler.com

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers overseas Filipinos, the rights of women and children, and local governments.