November 13, 2023
SINGAPORE – For seven months, Mr Francis Kamugisha was forced to work every day in heavily guarded scam mills in Laos and Myanmar after being lured to South-east Asia in August 2022 by the promise of an IT job.
His friend had referred him to an IT manager position at a data management company in Laos paying US$1,500 (S$2,040) a month.
Mr Kamugisha, who is Ugandan, grabbed the chance as he could not find stable employment in Dubai, where he was living at the time.
When he arrived in Laos’ capital Vientiane, two employees from the “company” picked him up and took him to his new workplace in Ton Pheung district, which borders Myanmar.
He sensed something was wrong when he saw armed guards patrolling the compound and was told to sign a contract that was different from the terms he had been offered.
He said: “I refused to sign it, but they had taken away my belongings, including my phone and passport. They told me to pay them 16,000 yuan (S$3,030) if I wanted to leave.
“I didn’t have the money, so they coerced me to work in a scam compound in Ton Pheung.”
He was there for two months before the criminals sent him to other scam compounds in Tachileik, Myanmar, by boat.
Both places are within the notorious Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone – an area that centres on north-east Myanmar and includes parts of Thailand and Laos.
The area has become a hotbed of transnational crime centred on human trafficking, drug production and illegal wildlife sales.
The United Nations (UN) said in a report published in August that hundreds of thousands of people are being forced by criminal gangs to work in scam and illegal gambling centres in South-east Asia.
In the fraud factories, Mr Kamugisha realised he had no choice but to work as a scammer if he wanted to survive.
He said: “I was beaten up with a baton if I refused to scam. They make your life a living hell.”
Ms Mina Chiang, founder of Humanity Research Consultancy (HRC), said she has seen cases where victims were beaten to death by criminals or had their fingers cut off.
“They make an example of them to scare others into submission,” she said.
HRC is a social enterprise based in Britain that provides research and training services to fight modern slavery.
Mr Kamugisha had to work for 18 hours a day with no day off. “We were not allowed to sleep for more than four to five hours a day. They woke us up by shocking us with electric tasers,” he added.
His role was to pose as an attractive businesswoman and charm men into falling in love with “her” so that they would invest in fraudulent schemes.
He said: “We were given scripts to follow and taught how to romance victims. To show that we are serious, we steer the conversation towards building a future together.”
Mr Kamugisha said it usually took two weeks to a month to get victims to fall in love with the character he was playing. “We text them every day, and really get to know them. They become attached to you.”
As he spoke English, the victims he texted were mostly based in the United States and Europe. Some of them sold their properties to make “investments”.
He said: “I felt terrible about it, but I couldn’t do anything. I was working just to survive. I didn’t make a single cent from these scams.
“We were constantly being monitored by managers, and there were white boards in the office that recorded how much was cheated from victims.
“I saw victims put down deposits of US$50,000 almost every day.”
The scam mills would even trade workers. Mr Kamugisha told The Straits Times that over seven months, he was resold to four different compounds that each staffed 30 to 80 workers.
The criminals running the syndicates that trafficked him were from China, he added.
“People said I would die here, but I held on to hope. I never gave up,” he said.
Ms Chiang said victims resold to other compounds are priced based on factors such as their IT skills, language abilities and race.
She knew of Taiwanese victims who were sold for between US$20,000 and US$25,000.
Mr Kamugisha contacted many organisations to seek help, including various embassies, the United Nations, Interpol and human rights agencies like the International Justice Mission (IJM). To avoid getting caught, he deleted the messages after sending them.
In February 2023, he said the criminals running the scam compounds questioned him on who he had been communicating with to escape.
“I didn’t tell them anything. They then took me to the military barracks, where military personnel questioned me about entering the country illegally,” he added.
An unidentified Good Samaritan convinced the officers not to arrest him and helped him travel to Laos. There, Mr Kamugisha, who had no passport, spent five months waiting for police clearance to leave.
Till this day, he does not know which organisation saved him from the scam compound.
He believes a representative from IJM, whom he had been communicating with, worked with embassies to put pressure on local politicians to release him.
Mr Kamugisha finally flew home to Uganda in July 2023, almost a year after he was trafficked.
He now works as an intern at HRC, where he collaborates with other agencies to help victims get out of scam compounds.
He said: “The things these syndicates do to fellow human beings are pure evil. They ruin people’s lives with no shame or conscience.
“I am lucky to have gotten out alive.”