UN Report: Thousands Trapped, Forced into Criminal Activities in South East Asia

Published: 31 August 2023

Avoid Scams FlickrCriminal gangs in Southeast Asia are torturing and abusing hundreds of thousands of people in order to force them to participate in a lucrative internet fraud industry. (Photo: Richard Patterson, Flickr, License)

By Erika Di Benedetto

Criminal gangs in Southeast Asia are torturing and abusing hundreds of thousands of individuals in order to force them into participating in a highly profitable online scam industry, generating billions of dollars annually, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) revelead on Tuesday.

The individuals subjected to abuses can be wrongly identified by law enforcements as criminals.

OHCHR disclosed in a report that approximately 120,000 people in Myanmar and an additional 100,000 in Cambodia have found themselves trapped in exploitative circumstances, compelled to carry out various profitable online scams, ranging from illicit gambling to cryptocurrency fraud.

Moreover, countries such as Laos, the Philippines, and Thailand have been identified as primary destinations or transit points for these criminal activities.

“People who are coerced into working in these scamming operations endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes,” said UN rights chief Volker Türk. “They are victims. They are not criminals,” he added.

The OHCHR report highlights the grave human rights violations these workers are exposed to, including torture, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, and forced labor.

On average, victims of these scams are deceived out of US$160,000 through the use of sophisticated scripts delivered via unregulated social media platforms.

As stated by OHCHR, victims originate not only from the the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — but also from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Asia, and even as far as Africa and Latin America.

Pia Oberoi, a senior advisor at OHCHR specializing in migration and human rights in the Asia Pacific, attributed the rise in these scams to the prevailing economic distress and unemployment in the region increased by the COVID-19 pandemic which has led to a surge in virtual work and businesses relocating to less regulated spaces.

“There is a lack of regular and safe pathways towards decent work opportunities” said Oberoi. “This has meant populations are more likely to rely on recruitment forums or intermediaries.”

OHCHR called on each state to strengthen their regulations already at the borders and to train their law enforcement in recognizing possible victims.

Oberoi pointed out that ASEAN nationals have the freedom to travel across borders without the requirement of a visa and with a “lack of protection sensitive screening.” Officials are not trained to “identify protection sensitive responses.”

In many countries regulations are not adequately enforced. These include border regions in Myanmar that have been affected by conflict and lack proper legal frameworks. 

Additionally, Oberoi mentioned that special economic zones in Laos and Cambodia, which have loose regulations, contribute to the problem.

Furthermore, OHCHR has said that forced criminality is frequently not recognized as a legal violation.

When victims manage to escape or are rescued from their ordeal, instead of receiving the necessary support, rehabilitation, and justice, they often face the ordeal of criminal prosecution or immigration penalties.