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Human trafficking in southeast Asia: A personal story of a Serbian man trafficked in Cambodia

By Dejan Alempijevic | Issue 24

It all began when I met another young man in a club in Belgrade. He was much younger than me – we had fun and we started seeing each other almost every day. I remember that he spoke Serbian, Russian, English, and Chinese. 

At the time, I was in between jobs and I couldn’t pay my rent anymore. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war in Ukraine, many people fled to Belgrade and the prices of rents rose rapidly. I told my new Russian friend that my salary as a help desk agent is not enough to live normally. I trusted him – he seemed knowledgeable and experienced. He suggested that I go with him to Cambodia because he has some acquaintances there. He told me that we could work for them and make a lot of money. He was not very precise about the job requirements, but he assured me that it would be some type of social work. He said we would get a work visa, as soon as we landed there. After a few days, I decided to go with him. 

Look inside the Cambodian work camp. Photo by the author, taken with a laptop as his personal phone was confiscated and never returned.

He bought me a plane ticket though I travelled alone, he had gone before me. It was an extraordinary trip –  flight to Vienna, then to Taiwan, and then to Phnom Penh. I will never forget this trip, simply because I made it out alive. It all started because I was curious. After all, I have never been to Asia before. 

After three days of travelling, I was finally in Cambodia. They already had pictures of me at the airport. There was a man there who waited for me, but he did not speak English. He took me to an office and after an hour I got a work permit. That was the beginning of my three-month stay in a work camp.

After receiving my permit, someone in a police uniform took me by the hand and he escorted me outside. There was a man waiting for me in a car. I was unable to communicate with him since we did not speak the same language; all he did was gesture with his hands that I had to enter the car. With Google Translate, I managed to ask him how long the drive was going to last. He answered me, “10 hours.” I was exhausted. 

Indeed we drove for around 10 hours and arrived at some facility. They took my COVID test and I entered the facility, where there were a few buildings. Everything was so smelly and dirty. He took me to my room, there were 10 workers there, all of whom were Asian workers. Trash, cigarette smoke, and the smell of sweat were everywhere. We only had one toilet and had to shower above it. My passport was taken from me. Eventually, one man came to me and shouted, “You work tomorrow! Now, sleep!” At this point, I was tired so I did go to sleep. 

It was only in the afternoon that I realised where I was. I was in a labour camp. There were so many policemen, concrete walls, and barbed wire on top. They just came to my room, took me by my hands, and told me to work. There was one other worker who explained to me what we do. We had to create false Instagram accounts and ask for money from rich American men. Using these Instagram accounts, we were engaged in ‘finding customers’ by adding new friends on social media and communicating intensively with them. We would gain their trust and push them to put their funds into investment platforms or online gambling, which was a scam. 

I could not believe it. Everything felt like something out of a crime movie. I told them that I did not want to do that job. Then the “boss” came and started hitting me. I then started working and scamming people as instructed. We had to work up to 15 hours a day, with two 15-minute breaks. We were not paid any money, we were just given food. 

While at the work site, I met two Russian workers. They soon became my allies – together, we began to plan an escape. After nearly three months in Cambodia, we eventually received permission to transfer to a work site in Laos, where we would try to run away.

That was not an easy plan though: on arrival to Laos, we realised that there were many police officers and a concrete door that would make it difficult to escape. We had to be smart: in the facility, there was no health care or hospital. We started to pretend that we were sick and that we had COVID. They took us to the closest medical facility in Laos. As soon as we had the chance, we started to run. We did not know where we were going. The policemen were not able to catch us. 

Thankfully, prior to escaping, we managed to retrieve our passports. My colleague had some money and he bought tickets to Thailand. Unfortunately though, as a Serbian citizen, I needed a visa if I were to leave the airport in Thailand. I stayed in Laos for a few days and begged for money, before flying to Thailand and staying in the airport transit zone and begging there. I spent five days at the airport in Thailand, eventually gathering enough to buy a flight ticket to Qatar because Serbia has an embassy there.  Once I arrived, I contacted our embassy and they helped me to safely return home.

This experience made me question my decision to go to Cambodia at all – why did I believe someone I did not know very well? What happened to the people who stayed there? I learned from this that anyone can be at a risk of human trafficking, no matter our background, race, gender, or the education we possess. This is why I am sharing this personal story. We all need to be familiar with these kinds of situations. Raising awareness is crucial. After everything, I survived, and I am happy I made it, but emotional wounds and scars are still healing.

Dejan Alempijevic obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Social Anthropology in Belgrade. He also completed Master’s studies in Intercultural Relations in Germany. Over the last 10 years, Dejan worked as an educator and activist for social change in numerous non-governmental organisations in Serbia, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Kosovo, Slovenia, and North Macedonia. Dejan works as a visa consultant, freelance researcher, and a social activist. He has also implemented many international projects on the Roma minority, LGBT groups, and international youth work.


Florian del Ray
Florian del Ray
Feb 16

oh man, I had the similar proposal. IM glad you made it safe.


Vida Belic
Vida Belic
Feb 16

what a story. I cannot belive these things are happening. I am glad you are safe now. 🤗

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