Young Moroccans sequestered in Burma to work by force in online scam centers

The story that the newspapers in Morocco have been buzzing about for almost two weeks is as astonishing as it is worrying

Young Moroccans sequestered in Burma to work by force in online scam centers

The story that the newspapers in Morocco have been buzzing about for almost two weeks is as astonishing as it is worrying. Nearly 200 Moroccans, men and women, are believed to have been detained, some for several months, by criminal gangs in Burma. According to a committee formed by families of victims, the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs has received reports of 158 cases of kidnapped citizens to date.

How did Moroccans, aged 20 to 30, find themselves, on the other side of the world, in the hands of mafia networks? Le Monde was able to speak with two former detainees returning to Morocco as well as with three families whose members are still in captivity. Their testimonies, delivered anonymously, were stripped of all information likely to reveal the identity of the victims. “A Moroccan man was tortured by his guards after he posted a video on the Internet to raise awareness about his situation,” confides a parent, frightened at the idea that the same treatment would be reserved for his child.

The stories and information to which Le Monde had access all point to the same modus operandi. The victims, students or employees, are contacted by strangers, also Moroccan, most often online although a case of direct approach, through a "neighbor", was reported by a person who was then residing in Europe .

Quickly, the accomplice questions his interlocutor about his sales or IT skills, before offering him a job in e-commerce. A position would be available, he explains, in a company in Thailand for a comfortable salary, with a bonus. In order to gain the trust of victims, false preliminary interviews are organized remotely with alleged officials on site.

Chinese triads

Once the offer is accepted, the person is invited to take a plane to Malaysia, a country that does not require a visa for Moroccan nationals. The ticket and hotel accommodation are the responsibility of the fraudsters. Everything is done to make the victim feel in the best conditions. She stayed two or three days in Kuala Lumpur, without paying anything out of her pocket, while her visa for Thailand was established. The day he arrives in Bangkok, a car with a driver awaits him at the airport exit.

“The man driving told me he was taking me to the city where I was going to work. I was exhausted, I fell asleep. When I woke up, I understood that I was not where I was supposed to be,” relates Karim (all first names have been changed). In reality, the 22-year-old man, previously employed in the United Arab Emirates, is no longer in Thailand but in Burma, in Karen State.

The region, one of the epicenters of the armed struggle between rebel movements and the ruling junta, is home to countless work camps specializing in online scams. Spreading along the Moei River, which marks the border with Thailand, these cyberfraud complexes are mostly under the control of Chinese mafia organizations.

Before his phone was recovered by his jailers, Karim had time to transmit his geolocation to his parents. The coordinates lead to barracks less than an hour's drive south of Myawaddy, the nerve center of digital crime in Burma. The association between the Chinese triads and the Burmese rebels is known. Close to Myawaddy, the Shwe Kokko area, partly financed by Chinese capital, is the emblem. But since the Covid-19 pandemic and the war between the junta and the rebels, revenues from its casinos and clandestine games have dried up.

In November 2023, the Digital Forensic Research Lab reported the emergence, from Burma, of “a massive kidnapping and fraud operation” on a global scale. “These criminal syndicates responded to the instability of their environment and successive shocks by using labor trafficking to defraud people around the world and make millions of dollars per year,” added the laboratory of American think tank Atlantic Council.

Many Sub-Saharans

According to the testimonies collected, the Moroccan victims would have reached Thailand between November 2023 and February 2024. During their detention, they say they rubbed shoulders with individuals from Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Russia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan, but also Tunisia and Lebanon. Many Sub-Saharans too. “The worst treated,” says Karim, who attests to having met people who have been captive for a year.

As told by those who have been there, daily life in these “compounds” turns out to be hellish. Days without rest, from Monday to Sunday, follow one another with the same objective: to scam as many Internet users as possible. “Exclusively Americans,” says Mohamed, who lived for more than three months in a camp.

This former convict, who claims to have worked seventeen hours a day, details the instructions his jailers gave him. Equipped with a computer and a telephone, he had to approach targets on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Tinder with the help of online translators. Others were subsequently responsible for lending their voice, sometimes their face, modified by artificial intelligence, to discuss further with them.

“To target a man, we created a false profile of a beautiful and rich woman, and vice versa,” explains Mohamed, who indicates that he extorted several hundred thousand dollars from American citizens looking for a romantic relationship or a relationship. business opportunity. “At first I refused, but the guards tied me to a gate and beat me,” he says, sobs in his voice.

Met near Casablanca, the parent of a victim scrolls through photographs on his phone of a kidnapped boy, his face injured by an electric baton, a leg bruised by stick blows. “Two Chinese women were killed by the guards when I was there,” accuses Karim, who says he was beaten and deprived of water and food for several days.

A “recent” phenomenon

The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH), which supports the families of the victims, assures that this is the first time that it has been confronted with this phenomenon. “Until now, we were talking about young people without qualifications and without work who take to the sea to reach Europe. But here, most of them are employees, many of whom have gone to university,” warns its general secretary, Taïb Madmad.

To leave the camp where he was held, Mohamed says he had to pay 6,000 dollars (around 5,550 euros) in cryptocurrency. Families would have done the same to get their loved ones back, but others report that they cannot afford such amounts, which represent more than twenty times the minimum wage in Morocco. Karim paid nothing. His release was facilitated by the assistance of local NGOs. According to the committee created by families, seven Moroccan citizens have left Burmese camps in recent days. Under the protection of humanitarian workers, they are on their way to Morocco.

Widely commented on in the Moroccan press, the situation of these detainees broke into Parliament, where written questions were addressed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Bourita. Contacted by Le Monde, neither Moroccan diplomacy nor the Chinese embassy in Rabat reacted. That of Thailand limits itself to declaring that “the Moroccan embassy in Bangkok is already in contact with the Thai authorities”. On May 3, she acknowledged in a statement “the relatively recent phenomenon” of “citizens of various African countries, not just Morocco, victims of international criminal networks in remote regions of Southeast Asia.”

Back with his parents, Karim is now undergoing psychiatric treatment. He still has difficulty testifying, searches for words, cries intermittently. Criticizing the lack of reaction from the Moroccan authorities, families of victims announced that they will demonstrate in Rabat on Thursday, May 16, in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Embassy, ​​before giving a press conference.