For every Kenyan who has been a victim of human trafficking to Myanmar, their story is that of hope for a rags-to-riches experience that instead dives them into the murky world of the Myanmar junta.
And as the government tries to save many from the jaws of militants, many Kenyans, particularly young women below the age of 30, are continuously getting duped into accepting fake job offers in Thailand, from where they are then trafficked to Myanmar to work as scammers targeting men from particular countries.
To help others from falling into the same trap, three women recently rescued from Myanmar shared the stories about how they left Kenya in search of job opportunities that never came, lost a fellow Kenyan but found a way back home after discovering that they had crossed over to a foreign land and were controlled by an armed group.
Their hope is to protect others from falling into a similar predicament and shed light on the desperation that makes young people easily trust whatever opportunity is thrown at them without thinking through the dangers that might lurk ahead.
For 29-year-old Damaris Akumu, from Migori County, the allure of a better life for herself and her child pushed her to use her savings to pay for what she thought was an opportunity of a lifetime.
“I had searched for jobs but none was forthcoming, so I paid the lady that was to arrange my travel Sh150,000 and borrowed another Sh100,000 for emergencies and personal effects and left Kenya on August 4,” she recalls.
Ms Akumu travelled on the same day with 26-year-old Marleen Nduta Gitau, who learnt about the job offers through a relative that she had met at her grandparents’ burial earlier this year.
“I am the second-born in a family of three. My elder sibling has Down syndrome, our last-born is a college student and my parents are casual labourers. This, therefore, means the responsibility of the firstborn falls squarely on me,” Ms Gitau explains.
The relative told her about opportunities in Thailand and she quickly started thinking about working in another country.
“In July, she contacted me and I sent her Sh140,000 for the air tickets and relevant transfers and borrowed an additional Sh150,000 from my grandmother and savings for personal effects and emergencies,” she recalls.
Ms Akumu and Ms Nduta were then added to a WhatsApp group that had a Kenyan (travel agent) admins and a Chinese as the contact person in Thailand.
“The rules were that we send images of where we are for every stop we make so that we can get instructions for the next move,” Ms Nduta recalls.
“When we arrived in Bangkok, a contact took us to Mae Sot hotel, where we spent the night. The following morning, we found two pickups waiting to transport us to the offices where we had been promised receptionist jobs.”
Lilian Munyasi’s story follows the same narrative. The 29-year-old is trained as a high school teacher but had not been absorbed by the Teachers Service Commission (TSC).
Earlier this year, she heard that there were teaching and front-office jobs in Thailand and thought of venturing out.
After paying for her air ticket and visa, she was added to a WhatsApp group with a Kenyan and a Thai as admins, who “interviewed” her for the job before sending her an air ticket and confirmation for her hotel accommodation.
Ms Munyasi left Kenya on August 8 and was picked up alongside another group of Kenyans in double-cabin trucks that would ferry them to their workstations.
“We found ourselves in cassava and maize plantations before crossing a river with a small boat to find men armed with swords waiting for us. At this point, it was obvious that something was terribly wrong,” Ms Munyasi recalls.
The three women recall arriving at a compound guarded by armed men in green uniforms.
“I asked where the office I was told I would be working at was and was told that I’d be shown in the morning,” Ms Munyasi says.
The following morning, they were told their work would be to scam men from particular countries through impersonation.
“We were told to download images of beautiful women from social media and take on their personas to lure seemingly rich men into engaging in intimate talks with us,” she adds.
“We would then lead them on until they fell in love with us, then share our contacts and introduce them to crypto-currency. At this point, I sent my brother the location that was showing on the computer and he confirmed that I was in another country.”
They shared accommodation space with other women who had been trafficked to Myanmar. With time, the three became friends and met other Kenyans working at the facility.
“We had targets set for us and those that failed to meet them would be forced to work overtime, run along a fleet of stairs, frog jump or get beaten,” recalls Ms Akumu.
During their stay, the women heard of cases where some labourers were reported to have disappeared and their organs trafficked.
“The common narrative was that the rebels would harvest the organs and dump bodies in the river,” recalls Ms Akumu.
What followed was an incident that made their resolve to return home urgent. One of the Kenyans working at the facility fell ill and died.
“The death of Grace Njoki Mata hit us hard. She could have survived had she received better care, but she was dumped at a hospital by the company she worked for when her situation worsened and unfortunately she succumbed. Her family is still fundraising to have her body transported home for burial,” says Ms Nduta.
Towards the end of the month and with the help of a local NGO and the Kenyan Embassy in Thailand, Ms Akumu, Ms Nduta and Ms Munyasi managed to leave Myanmar.
“On August 30, a local NGO had plastered their images on the walls of their work stations as demand for our release. The rebels picked up the posters and asked who we were and released us to Thai soldiers, who took us to Bangkok,” Ms AKumu says.
“Some of the ladies were too afraid to leave. They thought they would get killed and opted to remain behind. Others chose to stay as they could not imagine being jobless again.”
In Bangkok, they were taken to court for crossing over to Myanmar illegally and detained for a month as they waited to get air tickets to Nairobi courtesy of HAART Kenya.
Ms Munyasi has since taken up a teaching job at the Kakuma refugee camp.
“I regret taking the offer. I spent around Sh250,000 on air tickets, visa, hotel accommodation and other expenses that I am now paying back as some was borrowed money,” she says.
“I have even started a YouTube channel called Lilly Munyasi Diary to create awareness about unscrupulous travel agents. I also reported the matter to the DCI. The case is in court.”
Ms Nduta and Ms Akumu have also found ways to make a living at home and are actively searching for jobs, while warning those they reach against being duped to travel to Thailand for non-existent jobs.
Since August, the Kenyan Embassy in Thailand, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and HAART Kenya have rescued 76 victims, including 10 Ugandans and a Burundian.
But the embassy confirmed that some had refused to come home, putting their lives at greater risk as the area where the cybercrime is committed is controlled by insurgent groups.
“These groups of Kenyans being trafficked to war and crime zones present a serious threat to Kenya’s national security,” the embassy warned in a recent statement.