Organised criminal scam gangs are forcing hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia to take part in online crimes like romance investment scams, crypto fraud, and illegal gambling, according to a study from the UN Human Rights Office that came out today.
The report says that victims face a wide range of serious violations and abuses, such as threats to their safety and security. Many victims have also been tortured or given cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, forced labour, and other violations of human rights.
“People who are forced to work in these cheating operations are treated inhumanely and made to commit crimes. They’re victims. Volker Türk, who is in charge of human rights at the UN, said, “They are not criminals.”
“When we keep calling for justice for people who have been scammed online, we can’t forget that this complicated problem has two groups of victims.”
The study says that it’s hard to figure out how big online scam trafficking is in Southeast Asia because it’s hidden and the government isn’t doing enough to stop it. Credible sources say that at least 120,000 people in Myanmar may be forced to take part in online scams, and figures for Cambodia are about the same, at around 100,000.
Other countries in the area, like Lao PDR, the Philippines, and Thailand, have also been named as major places where at least tens of thousands of people end up or pass through.
Every year, the scam sites bring in billions of dollars in income.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the steps taken to stop it had a huge effect on illegal activities throughout the area. Many countries shut down their casinos because they were bad for public health. As a result, the study says, casino owners moved their businesses to places with less rules, such as conflict-torn border areas and Special Economic Zones, as well as the online space, which is becoming more profitable.
Faced with new ways of doing business, criminals increasingly tried to recruit vulnerable migrants who were stuck in these countries and out of work because of closed borders and businesses.
They did this by pretending to give them real jobs and then recruiting them into criminal operations. As a result of COVID shutdowns, millions of people had to stay at home and spend more time online. This made them easier targets for online fraud scams and made it easier for scammers to find people to recruit.
The report says that most of the people who fall for online scams are guys, but women and teens are also among the victims. Most are not from the countries where the crime is happening. Many of the victims have college degrees or even graduate or post-graduate degrees, know how to use computers, and speak more than one language.
People from Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam are among the victims of scam gangs. People from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Asia, and even Africa and Latin America are also among the victims of scam gangs.
Some Southeast Asian countries have put in place laws and policies to stop people from being trafficked, but in some cases, they don’t meet international standards. The study says that in many cases, their use hasn’t been able to keep up with the context and complexity of these online scams.
It says that people who are victims of trafficking or other human rights abuses are wrongly labelled as thieves or immigration offenders. Instead of being protected and getting the help they need, they are sent to prison or punished for breaking immigration laws.
“All of the affected countries need to find the political will to improve human rights, governance, and the rule of law. This includes making serious and long-term efforts to fight corruption.” “This needs to be a part of the solution to these scams just as much as a strong criminal justice response,” Türk said.
“Only a whole-person approach can break the cycle of impunity and make sure that the people who have been so horribly abused are safe and get justice.”