A lawmaker has urged Hong Kong and mainland Chinese authorities to step in and rescue Hongkongers who may have been scammed and detained overseas.

DAB member Elizabeth Quat’s comments came after several local media reports detailing the experiences of residents who said they had been trafficked into Southeast Asian countries and forced to take part in online scamming businesses.

Elizabeth Quat
DAB lawmaker Elizabeth Quat. Photo: Screenshot, via NowTV

“[The alleged fraudsters] are using Hongkongers to scam other Hongkongers to go somewhere to work. This is a frightening trap, because they are asking [Hongkongers] to scam their own people. The public must be very careful,” Quat said on Wednesday. She was speaking to reporters after a regular meeting with top officials at the Legislative Council.

“Since some Hongkongers may be trapped overseas, I also hope the Hong Kong police and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can coordinate and rescue Hong Kong residents as soon as possible,” Quat said.

Fraud syndicates

There have been a number of recent reports of fraud syndicates tricking people into travelling to countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos from Taiwan. Local media there have reported that more than 1,000 Taiwanese had been trafficked, with some subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

The syndicates reportedly lured people to work abroad by promising high salaries. Victims who were interviewed said they could only leave if their family paid a ransom or if they successfully scammed other people to join the syndicate.

myanmar human trafficking
File photo: Human Rights Watch.

In Hong Kong, local media has reported on similar incidents in recent days.

On Tuesday, Sing Tao reported that a Hong Kong man went to Thailand in July to meet his “girlfriend,” who he met online. Once he arrived in Bangkok, was taken to Myanmar, which borders Thailand, and his phone and passport had been taken from him.

He told Sing Tao that he was ordered to scam people or be beaten. He was detained for more than a month before returning to Thailand and eventually returning Hong Kong on Tuesday.

Oriental Daily also reported that it was in contact with a Hong Kong man who was being held in Myanmar. The man claimed he was being kept at a resort-like premises in Kayin State, a region along the Myanmar-Thailand border. He said he was required to earn 5 million yuan by scamming others or pay a ransom of HK$300,000 to be freed.

HK01 also interviewed three Hongkongers who said they had been tricked and detained in Myanmar. According to HK01, the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar confirmed it had received requests for assistance but had not been successful in its rescue efforts.

Assistance to Hong Kong Residents Unit

Police told HKFP that they had received 12 reports from people claiming to have been detained overseas over job or online love scams and seeking help from Hong Kong authorities since January.

The police did not specify the countries involved or disclose whether the cases had been resolved, but said they would “keep close contact with law enforcement agencies overseas,” and collaborate and exchange intelligence with them.

Immigration Tower
Immigration Tower. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The Immigration Department meanwhile confirmed with HKFP that its Assistance to Hong Kong Residents Unit had received a total of 17 requests for help since January. These were from people who said they had lost contact with family members who travelled to Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia or Laos.

The Department said 12 Hongkongers had safely left the countries in question, but did not provide further information about whether these people had returned to Hong Kong. It would follow up on the cases of the remaining five people, it added.

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Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.