HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of people are being forcibly engaged by organised criminal gangs into online criminality in Southeast Asia, from romance-investment scams and crypto fraud to illegal gambling, a new report issued by the UN Human Rights Office shows.

Victims face a range of serious violations and abuses, including threats to their safety and security. Many have been subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, forced labour, and other human rights abuses, the report says.

“People who are coerced into working in these scamming operations endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes. They are victims. They are not criminals”, said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk. “In continuing to call for justice for those who have been defrauded through online criminality, we must not forget that this complex phenomenon has two sets of victims.”

The magnitude of online scam trafficking in Southeast Asia is difficult to estimate, the reports says, because of the clandestine nature and gaps in the official response. Credible sources indicate that at least 120,000 people across Myanmar may be held in situations where they are forced to carry out online scams, with estimates in Cambodia similarly at around 100,000. Other States in the region, including Lao PDR, the Philippines and Thailand, have also been identified as main countries of destination or transit where at least tens of thousands of people have been involved.

The scam centres generate revenue amounting to billions of US dollars each year.

The Covid-19 pandemic and associated response measures had a drastic impact on illicit activities across the region. Public health measures closed casinos in many countries and in response, casino operators moved operations to less regulated spaces including conflict-affected border areas and Special Economic Zones, as well as to the increasingly lucrative online space, the report says.

Faced with new operational realities, criminal actors increasingly targeted migrants in vulnerable situations – stranded in these countries and out of work due to border and business closures – for recruitment into criminal operations, under the pretence of offering them real jobs. As Covid-related shutdowns saw millions of people restricted to their homes, spending more time online, there were more ready targets for online fraud schemes and more people susceptible to fraudulent recruitment.

Most people trafficked into the online scam operations are men, although women and adolescents are also among the victims, the report says. Most are not citizens of the countries in which the trafficking occurs. Many of the victims are well-educated, sometimes coming from professional jobs or with graduate or even post-graduate degrees, computer-literate and multi-lingual. Victims come from across the ASEAN region (from Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), as well as mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, South Asia, and even further afield from Africa and Latin America.

While some countries in Southeast Asia have put in place legal and policy frameworks relevant to counter trafficking, in some cases they fall short of international standards. In many cases their implementation has failed to respond adequately to the context and sophistication of these online scams,  Victims of trafficking and other human rights abuse are erroneously identified as criminals or as immigration offenders and, rather than being protected and given access to the rehabilitation and remedy they need, they are subjected to criminal prosecution or immigration penalties,the report says.

“All affected States need to summon the political will to strengthen human rights and improve governance and the rule of law, including through serious and sustained efforts to tackle corruption. This must be as much a part of the response to these scams as a robust criminal justice response”, said Türk.

“Only such a holistic approach can break the cycle of impunity and ensure protection and justice for the people who have been so horrifically abused.”

* Read the report here.

* Source: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights