Human trafficking of Taiwanese victims became a significant political issue in Taiwan in August. Although according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, more than 222 cases of Taiwanese having their freedom restricted were reported to Taiwan’s representative office in Ho Chi Minh City between June 21 and August 10, there was only increased discussion of the issue after Taiwanese politicians and media began to zoom in on the issue. News of the trafficking cases takes place after increased international scrutiny on the issue of human trafficking in Cambodia, with victims including Taiwanese, Chinese, Malaysians, Thai, Vietnamese, and others.
It is generally thought that Taiwanese victims are made to work in telecom fraud rings, after having been lured to Cambodia with promises of high-paying jobs in which lodging, accommodations, and meals would be provided. Many are young people, with some news reports emphasizing that this included the well-educated. Jobs advertised included typist positions that reportedly promised up to 100,000 New Taiwan dollars ($3,270) per month, or computer engineering jobs.
At the same time, some reports suggest that some of the kidnapped Taiwanese were made to work for Chinese-speaking clientele in casinos in Sihanoukville, where there have long been concerns about growing Chinese criminal activity, and some rare cases of sexual trafficking.
It remains unclear how many Taiwanese are victims of human trafficking in Cambodia. The National Police Agency originally stated that it believed that there were 2,000 human trafficking victims in Cambodia and that in the past months, around 1,000 Taiwanese traveled to Cambodia each month but only 100 returned per month. As such, some counts suggest up to 5,000 Taiwanese have not returned from Cambodia. Later on in August, the Taiwanese government stated that it believed it had identified 373 victims of human rights trafficking in Cambodia, and that 40 of them had returned to Taiwan. There have been more returnees since then, with 151 rescues having taken place, according to the government.
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Yet the overall situation is unclear. Part of the difficulty in counting the number of victims may be due to the fact that some victims might have crossed the Cambodian border by land from third countries. Much of the information on the conditions that human trafficking victims face comes from freed victims themselves, with reports of beatings, sexual assault, electrocutions, and even organ harvesting, as well as being sold multiple times between different human rights traffickers. There have been reports of fatalities among victims, while others were injured attempting to escape.
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Three Taiwanese were found dead in an apartment in Phnom Penh on August 28. It is believed that one of the three shot and killed the other two before committing suicide. It remains unclear whether this is related to the human rights cases, with some reports suggesting links to organized crime. The mother of one of the deceased has called on the government to repatriate the body from Cambodia.
A number of arrests have been made to date regarding the shootings, with police touting this as progress in breaking up human rights trafficking rings. Over 70 arrests were made as of late August.
Much of the shock regarding the cases in Taiwanese society seems to be because they involved cases of Taiwanese trafficking other Taiwanese, whereas cases of Taiwanese human trafficking Southeast Asian migrants in Taiwan or elsewhere in past years do not attract so much scrutiny.
Many reports have focused on the involvement of members of the Bamboo Union triad, one of Taiwan’s largest organized crime groups, which is thought to be politically slanted toward pro-unification views.
Nevertheless, pro-unification politician “White Wolf” Chang An-lo, thought to be the former leader of the Bamboo Union triad, has been publicly critical of Bamboo Union members involved in human trafficking operations. Chang played a role in assisting the KMT with political killings during the Taiwanese authoritarian period, and has reinvented himself as a pro-China politician after his release from 10 years in jail in the U.S. on drug smuggling charges.
According to comments to Taiwanese media by Wu Tung-tan, a major figure of the Heavenly Way triad, another of Taiwan’s major gangs, the Heavenly Way triad, the Bamboo Union, and other Taiwanese organized crime groups are now attempting to free victims, and are seeking to expel members involved in human trafficking operations.
Indeed, the issue is particularly sensitive because of the strong ties between the Cambodian government and the Chinese government at present. By contrast, there have been reports that cooperation between the Taiwanese and Cambodian police has been complicated by the lack of official diplomatic ties between Taiwan and Cambodia. For its part, Cambodian authorities claim to be assisting.
In particular, the Chinese government has also offered to assist in efforts to free Taiwanese victims, perhaps with the suggestion that China’s ties with Cambodia would allow it to free the victims. The Taiwanese government has declined this, stating that it would take on the task of freeing Taiwanese nationals.
Namely, this is not the first time that the Chinese government has offered to assist Taiwanese nationals in an emergency or disaster, with suspected ulterior motives aimed at depicting the Taiwanese government as ineffectual. The Chinese government has also been accused of spreading fake news to the effect that Chinese representatives were successful in aiding Taiwanese abroad while the Taiwanese government’s representatives were not.
For example, this took place after a number of Taiwanese were stranded in Osaka in the aftermath of Typhoon Jebi, resulting in a series of events that led to the suicide of Taiwanese diplomat Su Chii-cherng one week later, following widespread criticism of Su on the Internet. It is unclear whether disinformation that Chinese authorities had assisted stranded Taiwanese was genuinely of Chinese origin. However, pan-Green influencer Slow Yang was later blamed.
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China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, as well as its embassy in Cambodia, has stated that Taiwanese seeking assistance are welcome to contact them for assistance. Chinese spokesperson Zhao Lijian has stated in comments that over 20 Taiwanese have contacted the Chinese embassy and some have been rescued, but the veracity of this claim is unknown.
In past years, there have been incidents in which Taiwanese perpetrators of telecom fraud were deported to China to face charges, rather than Taiwan, by the governments of Southeast Asian countries in which telecom fraud rings were operating. These were framed by the Taiwanese government as cases of China kidnapping Taiwanese, leveraging on its ties with Southeast Asian governments.
It’s worth noting that one of the kidnapped Hong Kong Causeway Bay booksellers, Gui Minhai, was kidnapped from Thailand. This is unlikely to have taken place without the knowledge of Thai authorities. Men who contacted Gui’s landlord about him before his disappearance were reported as seeking to travel to Cambodia before abandoning the cell phone they used.
A joint task force between government agencies has been set up to deal with trafficking. In the meantime, it may not be surprising to note that the issue has become an object of contention in domestic politics between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps. The ruling Tsai administration has sought to defend its record, while KMT politicians have painted its response as ineffectual.
For example, KMT Taipei city councilor Angela Ying, who sought to draw attention to the issue early on and claims to have received a number of requests for assistance from trafficked Taiwanese, criticized police as primarily seeking to deter more Taiwanese from traveling to Cambodia rather than focusing efforts on rescuing victims. She also noted, however, that some victims may be unwilling to come forward because they have criminal records of their own.
As arrests were also recently made regarding 50 Taiwanese victims of human trafficking in Dubai, YouTuber Hao-pang Bump claimed that Taiwan’s representative office in Dubai had turned away a victim. The KMT criticized the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for hitting back against his claim, though it later thanked Bump for his efforts to draw attention to the issue.
In another incident, three KMT legislators traveled to Cambodia to bring back a 19-year-old victim and subsequently argued with police at the airport upon their return, seemingly because police wished to immediately question the victim. DPP politicians such as Premier Su Tseng-chang called on the KMT not to make a show out of efforts to assist victims afterward.
The KMT itself has long leveraged the political claim that it, unlike the DPP, is able to communicate with the CCP and in this way maintain stable cross-strait relations as a justification for why it should hold power. But at times when the KMT is under fire for its links to China, such as during vice chair Andrew Hsia’s recent trip to meet with Chinese government officials in the wake of unprecedented live-fire drills around Taiwan by the People’s Liberation Army, DPP attacks on the KMT over this issue are not surprising.
That is, broadly speaking, pan-Green politicians have sought to draw connections between the trafficking cases and China. Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu, for example, has compared the trafficking cases to Chinese efforts to co-opt Taiwanese through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and framed the trafficking as taking place in the context of the BRI’s development of ties between Southeast Asian countries and China
It is to be expected that the issue will remain one that is fought over between the pan-Green and pan-Blue camps. There seems to be little room for bipartisan cooperation on the matter, particularly given the external influence of China.