Shortly: A UN report has revealed that hundreds of thousands of people from around the world are being trafficked and forced into participating in online scam operations in Southeast Asia. The criminal gangs that carry out cybercrime subject victims to threats, torture and sometimes sexual violence to keep them in line.
A new report The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, citing “credible sources”, says at least 120,000 people in Myanmar, about 100,000 in Cambodia and tens of thousands in Laos, the Philippines and Thailand “may be held in situations”. where they are forced to commit online fraud.”
Although the gangs have traditionally targeted less educated people and vulnerable migrants, they are now resorting to victims in professional occupations, some of whom have college or postgraduate degrees and are multilingual. These victims are often lured by promises of programming jobs, but end up in guarded camps where their passports and phones are forcibly confiscated.
Online crimes committed by the gangs include love and financial scams, crypto fraud, money laundering and illegal gambling. In the romance providers, men often act as women to trick a target. If anyone asks to see the women, the criminals use one of the few women on the premises as a role model.
The scams are thought to generate billions in revenue. “It’s so incredibly lucrative that there’s very little political will to tackle the problem holistically. We don’t see any signs that the situation is really slowing down – other than that actors are shifting operations when there is pressure from law enforcement agencies,” said Pia Oberoi, a senior UN adviser on migration and human rights for the Asia-Pacific region. Oberoi added that “they are protected in a way by the authorities.”
While these operations have been around for years, they have grown since the pandemic forced casinos to close and resulted in many victims losing their jobs and unable to move elsewhere. Oberoi said many of the victims were people from Southeast Asia, with some also from South Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Many of these incidents go unreported because victims are “stigmatized and shamed” for the work they do, despite being tricked and coerced into participating.
Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “As we continue to demand justice for those who have been cheated by online crime, we must not forget that this complex phenomenon has two groups of victims.”
Türk called on governments to crack down on the gangs running these operations. The report states that an appropriate response should be “not just…”. [involve] fighting organized crime or enforcing border controls”, but also ensuring protection and justice for these victims of human trafficking.