In our series of letters from African journalists, Waihiga Mwaura of Citizen TV in Kenya looks at how Kenyans are scammed by cartels posing as recruiting agents.
If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. That was the message from the Kenyan Foreign Ministry when it warned job seekers attracted by the promise of greener pastures in Southeast Asia.
It follows the rescue of more than 60 Kenyans from Myanmar and Laos in recent months – after the sales and customer service jobs they applied for in Thailand turned out to be a cover for cybercrime, prostitution and even organ theft.
“A young Kenyan has already died as a result of a botched operation by quacks in China-run factories in Myanmar,” the ministry said last week.
I spoke with two women about their recent experiences. A 31-year-old, who has a degree in hotel management, and a 35-year-old high school graduate asked for anonymity and told me how they left for Thailand in August to work with a promise of an $800 monthly salary ( £675).
A month before their departure, they had each borrowed nearly $2,000 to pay their agents for the trip and underwent a short training session.
But upon arrival in Thailand, their escorts took them on a long journey by road, eventually crossing a river into neighboring Laos.
They ended up in a 15-story building, which became their permanent residence – although they did not know which village or city they were in.
Here they learned that instead of customer service roles, they were into cybercrime, namely to target Americans by creating enticing profiles on Tinder, Instagram, and Facebook.
“They fall in love with you and you can tell them about crypto. You start stealing from them,” said the 31-year-old woman, describing in Swahili how they were both forced to work in a large call center-like room with hundreds of others of different nationalities.
Neither of them received their promised salary and were instead threatened with sex work or organ harvesting if they didn’t lure enough victims online.
“As a woman you might be forced into sex trafficking. If that doesn’t work, they can harvest your organs and sell them to pay back their costs,” she explained, her companion agreeing as she spoke.
“They told us, ‘You have to pay 1.2 million Kenyan shillings ($10,000) to buy your freedom, because we own you.’
Fortunately, the pair managed to make contact online with Awareness Against Human Trafficking (Hart), a Kenyan charity that helps migrants in trouble, and they were eventually rescued and flown home with the help of the UN and Kenyan authorities.
Their story echoes that of other Kenyans held in what the State Department calls “fraud factories” and “forced labor camps” where “their passports are normally confiscated and remain in the care of the criminal gang”.
It said that while many of the recruitment agents were wanted by the police, they were still advertising non-existent jobs in Thailand and Kenyans continued to fall prey to the scam.
Some of the rescued had returned home on crutches with broken limbs “after being badly beaten by as many as 20 gang members operating in the factories”.
According to the latest statement from the State Department, some Kenyans in Myanmar appear to be in Kachin state, where separatists from the rebels are battling the military – something that has hampered rescue efforts.
“Recent army operations have killed more than 60 people in the area controlled by rebel groups, which provide protection to the Chinese cartels,” the ministry warned.
A total of 76 victims, including 10 Ugandans and a Burundian, have been repatriated since August with the help of officials from the Kenyan embassy in Thailand.
It is young and educated Africans who have been targeted by the cartels as they are considered the best to take on the cybercrime work.
This highlights the dire underemployment on the continent and how successive governments promise jobs to their people but fail to deliver.
The African Development Bank estimates that while more than 12 million young people enter Africa into employment each year, only three million formal jobs are created each year.
According to research by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, 80% of Africans who leave the continent – especially those heading for Europe – do so in search of work.
Those lucky enough to find a job can send money home to support relatives.
Yet all too often they find themselves in difficult situations. The revelations of the job scam in Southeast Asia follow continued reports of the mistreatment of African migrants in the Middle East.
The two young women I spoke to are now heavily in debt – and in a worse situation than they were five months ago.
The 35-year-old has found work in a hair salon, but her partner has yet to find another job.
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