On 23 May this year, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) in Kenya issued a warrant of arrest for Wycliffe Onguti Magara. Magara was identified as the head of a local human trafficking network that recruits East Africans online with the promise of job opportunities in Southeast Asian countries.
However, once in Southeast Asia trafficked victims are forced to work for cybercrime gangs and prostitution rings in countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar.
According to a regional newspaper published in Nairobi, an increasing number of East Africans are being lured through online job scams that promise to pay well in Southeast Asia. For example, a ‘sales specialist’ is promised US$2 098 a month, while a bilingual translator is promised up to US$3 000. These job opportunities overseas are particularly appealing to youth in East Africa, where recent studies show that up to 80% are unemployed and the average monthly salary is around US$634 a month.
Conning young people is a growing and profitable business. The DCI established that Magara’s network received between US$2 442 and US$2 791 from each victim as ‘applicant processing’, ‘agency’ and tourist visa fees to facilitate their travel from East Africa to Southeast Asia. At the same time, his foreign contacts paid him and his accomplices up to US$1 395 for every successful victim recruitment and transfer from East Africa to Southeast Asia.
Damaris Akumu and Marleen Nduta Gitau were conned into being trafficked from Kenya to Myanmar on 4 August 2022. They were recruited for teaching and front-office jobs and added to a WhatsApp group controlled by Kenyan, Chinese or Thai administrators. They were each asked to pay up to US$2 000 for air tickets and airport transfers. When they arrived in Bangkok, they were transferred to Mae Sot Hotel where they spent the night.
The following morning, together with other victims, they were transported in pick-up trucks across the Thaung Yin River to Myanmar and handed over to insurgent groups in Kachin State. Once there, they were ordered to download images of women on social media and pretend to be these women to lure men into online sexual exploitation.
In September 2022, Kenya’s government, together with the International Organization for Migration – Kenya, Awareness Against Human Trafficking (HAART Kenya) and the Laos government, repatriated 24 victims of trafficking from Myanmar. Most were female citizens of Kenya, Burundi and Uganda under 30 years old.
In June 2023, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) issued a global warning on the increased activities of human trafficking networks fuelled by fraud. In particular, it noted an escalation in human trafficking networks using online job scams to lure victims who are then ‘forced to commit cybercrime-enabled financial crimes on an industrial scale’.
INTERPOL further noted the threat of a double-edged crime. After being conned by the false promise of job opportunities, victims are forced into working online scams, forced labour and prostitution in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and the Philippines.
The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women has also noted the increase of East African trafficking victims in the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines. It said that on arrival at the border and airports, victims are often driven to deserted hotels where they are forced to work in ‘fraud factories’, conducting love scams, money laundering and illegal gambling. Victims who try to leave are often asked to pay back a debt that can be as high as US$10 000.
Curbing fake online recruitments that are used to lure desperate and unemployed youth from East Africa requires collaborative efforts between governments and social media companies to identify fake job adverts and stop them from being published on the internet.
In a Working Group on Trafficking in Persons report, the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime recommended that technology companies embrace more robust scanning practices to detect cons that also result in human trafficking online. Google and Meta recently joined Tech Against Trafficking, a coalition of technology companies and global experts that works towards supporting and accelerating the impact of technology solutions in combatting human trafficking.
Stemming the tide of human trafficking further requires global partnerships. The efforts to repatriate East Africans from Southeast Asia required collaboration between Southeast Asian countries, the Kenyan Embassy in Thailand and local anti-trafficking civil society groups such as HAART Kenya.
It is also important that vulnerable groups are made aware of these cons and scams, and protected from the consequent harms. In this case, the target group for Southeast Asia traffickers is educated youth desperate for employment. Enforcement of anti-trafficking laws to prosecute East African and Southeast Asian traffickers needs to be prioritised.
Lastly, curbing human trafficking will require a concerted global effort that embraces the new realities of the double-edged crime threat of trafficking victims being forced into criminal online scams and financial fraud.
Willis Okumu, Senior Researcher, East Africa, ENACT Project, Nairobi