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Why are Human Trafficking Cases Soaring in Southeast Asia?

Job scams disguising human trafficking activities between Taiwan and parts of Southeast Asia have been at the heart of Taiwanese news over the last two weeks, after victims came forward to report and share their horrifying experiences with the authorities and the public. Since then, some cases of human trafficking scams have been identified in Hong Kong as well. A lot can be learned from these stories –the trafficking industry in Southeast Asian countries has been put back into the spotlight, while others criticise the Taiwanese and Hong Kong governments for not taking action immediately. I aim to shed light on a third problem implied by the notoriety of these scams: the increasing struggle to find employment on the part of young graduates in the 21st century.


The trafficking cases

As of this month, Taiwanese authorities have uncovered 373 cases of the trafficking of Taiwanese citizens into Cambodia. So far, 333 are still stuck in the Southeast Asian country, while 40 have been rescued and are back in Taiwan. Taiwanese authorities further estimated that as many as 2,000-5,000 Taiwanese could have fallen victim to job scams in Cambodia, based on examinations of domestic flight records in which approximately 1,000 left the country but only 100 returned every month. Meanwhile, among the 20 known cases in Hong Kong, 12 have been confirmed to be safe, with 10 already back in Hong Kong. Authorities have yet to establish contact with the remaining 8, who are believed to be in Myanmar. The Hong Kong victims were trafficked to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.


The known victims, mostly young adults, were usually lured to these Southeast Asian countries with the prospect of taking up high-paying job posts, although one case has become infamous in which a Hong Konger flew to Thailand to see his alleged online girlfriend, but was then kidnapped and transferred to Myanmar. According to the Taiwanese government, 99% of the victims had been forced to conduct electronic fraud, while a minority had been forced into the sex industry. Taiwanese Cabinet spokesman Lo Ping-cheng also said in reference to the complicated process of determining the numbers of kidnapped Taiwanese, that some people had been completely fooled, while others were already aware of their imminent criminal roles; still others committed electronic fraud to “find a replacement” for themselves and thus regain liberty.


More details were revealed by a rescued victim known as Pipi, who shared her experience at a news conference held by Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) on 18 August. Pipi said that a friend had got her a high-paying job in Cambodia, but upon her arrival she was carted off to a fully-fenced industrial park. She was resold four times in seven days, but eventually managed to escape with the help of a local anti-fraud organisation. She recalled that other Taiwanese captives had escaped by jumping off a building, but had suffered leg injuries in doing so. Pipi also shared that some prisoners were being beaten by fraud rings that had bribed local police to cover their tracks.


Governments face criticism

While such news has only recently caused nationwide consternation, isolated reports of trafficking disguised as employment opportunities were initially received in March in Taiwan, and January in Hong Kong. However, special task forces responsible for tackling the incident were only established in both Taiwan and Hong Kong in the last few days. This has generated criticism from citizens who feel that their governments could have been more efficient. The Taiwanese DPP’s opposition party, Kuomintang (KMT), condemned the DPP’s “impotence” in shutting down human trafficking bases in Taiwan. In Hong Kong, public opinion is very much against the government’s inability to provide assistance to a citizen who had attempted to leave Myanmar, but was refused entry into his home city because he had failed to find an accepted quarantine location. Nevertheless, authorities are continuing to attempt to establish contact with those who have sufficient digital freedom. Authorities are also busy with exposing the trafficking rings’ connections within domestic territory, and with organising talks with international organisations to figure out the method of punishment for these fraudulent groups.


The employment problem

While the world waits for further news from the Taiwanese and Hong Kong officials, it would be wise to address the elephant in the room: the evident desperation of youths nowadays to find well-paying jobs. This is due to a combination of two factors, the first being the increasing cost of living. Hong Kong was named the world’s most expensive city for the third time in a row this year - despite the fact that year-on-year price rises (3%) and global inflation (5.8%) have impacted Hong Kong less than other cities in the region - with electricity, gas, and water bills increasing by 21.8% at the end of 2021. This means that, regardless of Hong Kong’s macroeconomic performance compared to similar cities, ordinary Hong Kongers may increasingly struggle to keep up with the ballooning cost of basic commodities. Similarly, Taiwan’s consumer prices rose by more than 3% for a fifth consecutive month in July 2022. According to the Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (DGBAS), this rise was led by increases in the prices of food and fuel – basic necessities for urban Taiwanese residents whose income may not be able to sustain the higher prices for everyday purchases.


Indeed, living through a pandemic for the last three years has seriously affected the global economy, which has spelled trouble for all salaried workers. As the Taiwanese and Hong Kong governments introduced all sorts of restrictions on businesses’ opening hours and customer capacities, alongside limiting ordinary people’s outdoor activity, many businesses experienced substantial drops in revenue which forced them to make cutbacks on all aspects of production. This often included staff and pay cuts, severely restricting the amount of disposable income available to many adults. Without the prospect of higher pay – and for some people, a reliable income source at all – in the foreseeable future, it is not hard to see how many people would struggle with paying increased prices for nearly everything.


At the same time, there has been a relative decrease in the number of job vacancies available. In Taiwan, part of the blame is placed on the negative impact the Covid-19 epidemic has had on businesses, wherein many companies have been forced to make cutbacks or close their doors due to poor returns. This led to an unemployment rate of 3.74% in June 2022, setting a new high for Taiwan since November 2021. On the other hand, some experts are more optimistic about the future for Hong Kong’s fresh grads, as a wave of emigration has created job vacancies. However, increased relations between Hong Kong and the Greater Bay Area also mean greater competition for these spots, as mainland Chinese youth travel down to find work. Thus, while Hong Kong’s unemployment rate dropped from 5.1% in March-May to 4.7% in April-June, the rate for people aged 20-24 remained at 11%.


Thus, we can see how a mixture of rising living costs and net decrease in job opportunities can lead to desperation from recent batches of university graduates to find any form of work that pays well. To add fuel to the fire, in Asian communities, there is a huge pressure to be able to comfortably situate one’s parents in adulthood as a means of repaying them for their love and labour in their youth. The people that cash in on this distress, let alone illegally and brutally, are undeniably cruel and unsympathetic. To play on the worst fears of thousands of young just-turned-adults is despicable and shows the masterminds’ complete detachment from the realities of a society with increasingly harsh expectations, living through criminal means as they do.


Apart from the trafficking rings, however, older generations may also be ignorant of the pressure felt by young graduates to achieve material success. One article wrote of the young victims, “they share a common desire to make more money and a youthful arrogance that passes for naivety when confronted by an offer too good to pass up, a recipe which criminal elements are always quick to take advantage of.” I cannot help but find this claim condescending of both the captives and their generation of people as well - the statement paints a very pretty picture of young people, portraying them as having no negative or even deep thoughts in the pursuit of wealth and quick success. While attempting to find an easy way out may be true of some individuals, this is definitely not the case for many others, who feel the increasingly difficult need to become financially independent and to be able to support their own family.


In this way, I am fighting against such over-simplistic views of today’s youth, especially the belief that they possess some universal “youthful arrogance”. We are completely aware of the inflating cost of living and the decreasing means we have at our disposal to match these prices; I have not even touched upon the impact of political instability on young people’s career considerations and other important life choices. In the face of so many insurmountable pressures, how can the younger generations of adults remain optimistic about their futures? Rather than arrogance, it may be a sense of having nowhere else to go that the traffickers are feeding on.


Yet despite this last-resort feeling, many of the trafficked youths did not admit defeat at the hands of their captors. Rather, escape stories like Pipi’s show that they refused to remain helpless captives at the mercy of the traffickers, risking their lives to return home, in order to start over and try their hands at adulthood in receding national and global economies. This clearly displays young people’s passion for life, hope for the future, and a strong willpower that allows us to try things over and over again, despite the high chances of failure. These qualities should not be labelled as arrogance; instead, they should be admired as qualities that might be the key to lifting the world economy back to its former prosperity, and even to achieve new heights.


 The trafficking of thousands of people into Southeast Asia in recent months is undeniably a huge cause of concern with regards to the abilities of governments to protect their citizens. Yet, lurking just under the surface is another, more complicated problem, that of unemployment amongst the young during a pandemic and a global recession. So, instead of deriding and underestimating the victims of these trafficking cases, we should empathise with their struggles to find work, to find their footing in a confusing situation, and to escape the traps set for them by cold-blooded criminals. It is only together that everyone may be able to overcome the societal and economic problems we now face.


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