When Rose Mwikali left the country on May 20, she knew she was travelling to Thailand to work as a front office staff in a company contacted by her agent in Nairobi.
The 30-year-old mother of one however found herself smuggled to Myanmar where she and five other Kenyans worked for militant rebels as internet scammers targeting men across the world.
For three months, Ms Mwikali’s work entailed selling raunchy images of female models via the internet. The men would then be required to pay for the images or pay to speak to the models via digital currency.
How she got to Myanmar exposes the risks that jobless Kenyans are willing to take in search of jobs abroad.
When leaving the country in May, Mwikali was only issued with a tourist visa to Thailand, which was to expire in 14 days. Her agent had promised her a work permit and identity card to ease movement but that never materialised.
Instead, after two weeks in Bangkok, she and the others in her group were linked up with a foreigner who detained their passports and smuggled them into Myanmar via the Salawin river, where armed militants were waiting to receive them.
“When we asked where we were going, no one answered us. They did not understand English. On the other end were armed men in green uniforms waiting to receive us alongside some Chinese men and their drivers,” she recalled.
They got into the vehicles and were driven for close to two hours into an enclosed facility with villas and casinos. They were told not to take photos, leave the compound or interact with outsiders.
“They then took us to the accommodation area that looked like a dormitory. From there, we were told our work would begin the following day. When we asked what kind of work it would be, we were told we’d be taught,” she recalled.
The following day, each of them was provided with a desktop computer and about five phones and instructed on what to do.
“We would post the models' images via Twitter, Tiktok, Instagram, Telegram and another sites after every three hours in a bid to lure a certain number of customers every day,” she recalled.
Mwikali said they did this every day for 12 hours under heavy supervision.
“Once we posted a photo, we were required to chat with those that fell for the trick until they share their WhatsApp numbers. From there, the chats would be personalised to lure the victims into sharing more of their personal details and money,” she said.
“We would get details of their location, ask them whether they want to meet with the models and once the company had received enough money, they’d cut off communication with their victims and proceed to the next target,” she added.
Those who missed their targets would be punished with squats, running and had their commissions withheld.
Two weeks into the job, she shared her location with her brother back at home who informed her that she had crossed into Burma.
“He sent me a map and that is when I knew that we were in trouble. Every time we asked for our passports, we were told to wait and we’d be harassed for it,” she said.
After two months of being overworked, suffering mental torture and being fed highly spiced food, Mwikali and her friends complained about not getting the jobs they had been promised. In return, they were asked to pay back Sh1.5 million each, get locked up in a room with no food or water or get killed.
“They locked us up in a room for seven hours without communication and food. Afterwards, they asked us if we want to die or continue with work. Of course we chose to live,” she said.
Mwikali and the others then began their search for the Kenyan Embassy in Thailand through a friend and shared their location with the embassy.
“We gave the embassy all the evidence that was needed and were asked to wait to be rescued. On August 8, the big boss announced that he would be escorting us to Mae Sot and to our surprise, the Thai embassy officials and army were waiting for us at the border,” she explained.
The five of them were interrogated by Thai officials and detained for two days in Mae Sot, a city in Thailand that shares a border with Myanmar, for crossing the border illegally.
They then paid a fine of 1,000 Thai baht and were taken to the Thai immigration isolation centre and later to Bangkok, from where their families were contacted to pay for their tickets back home.
“My mum had borrowed Sh150,000 to get me here and was forced to source for an additional Sh80,000 for my ticket, Sh12,000 for the Covid test and money for upkeep to facilitate my stay in Bangkok and flight home,” Mwikali explained.
“We went with no money and are still making our parents broke, For the three months, we earned only Sh30,000 each, this was a total waste of time,” said Mwikali.
In hindsight, Mwikali says she should have sensed that something was amiss when they left Nairobi without a contract and the name of the company they would be working for.
“I had trusted the lady who linked me with him (agent) since I knew he had taken a few people to Iraq and Dubai. I have also travelled before, so I had nothing to fear,” she recalled.
Two of the other four booked their flights home last week but Ethiopian Airlines said it could not carry more than two deportees at a time so they were pushed to next week.
Despite the ordeal, Mwikali still hopes to get a good deal abroad to be able to fend for her 9-year-old son and parents.
“I did a certificate course in catering but I was not able to complete it. From there, I became a hustler. I worked in Saudi between 2019 and 2021 as a house maid and later as a hotel worker and caregiver. I was never mistreated or harassed,” she said.
She has since recorded a statement with detectives who are interrogating the smuggling case that Mwikali says has trapped about 50 Kenyans in Myanmar alone, even as others continue to fall prey to the fake opportunities.
Last week, the Kenyan Embassy in Thailand said it is “overwhelmed” by distress calls from nationals duped into non-existent jobs by a suspected human trafficking cartel.
This week, the government said it had rescued citizens in danger in Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. It said most of them are young women who end up engaged in illegal activities, including being smuggled into Myanmar for the “dirty” jobs.
“Tens of other Kenyans were arriving at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, all of whom had been whisked across the border into Myanmar following the same pattern as the previous groups. The embassy has now received distress calls from at least 30 Kenyans, and we are informed there are more than 50 in Myanmar and three in Laos,” the embassy said in a statement.