This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Hundreds of thousands of people across Southeast Asia have been enslaved and forced to carry out online scams worth billions of dollars, a new U.N. report says, with Cambodia and wartorn Myanmar the worst affected and Thailand serving as a major trafficking hub.
The report from the U.N. human rights office notes the latest scourge of human trafficking to hit Southeast Asia is markedly different from the type that historically impacted the region: outflows of uneducated and poor citizens for forced sex work and manual labor elsewhere.
Instead, the new multi-billion dollar trafficking industry that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by inflows of foreign citizens – some even with higher educations – for scamming.
The report says “many of the victims are well-educated, sometimes coming from professional jobs or with graduate or even postgraduate degrees, computer-literate and multi-lingual” and are being recruited by traffickers “under the pretence of offering them real jobs.”
Many come from other Southeast Asian countries, but there are also many victims from China, South Asia, East Africa and the Middle East, it says. They often arrive in one country, such as Thailand, expecting to work there, but are then surreptitiously ferried into a second country, such as Myanmar or Cambodia, where their passports are taken.
There, the U.N. says, they are kept under the watch of armed guards and forced to work in industrial-scale online scam operations, using elaborate scripts – and posing as romantic flames or investors – to trick people in wealthy countries to send money back to their captors via trusted cryptocurrency platforms like Binance or Coinbase.
“The scams are often sophisticated; fake websites are built to showcase fraudulent data in order to convince the target that there are significant profits to be made,” the report says. “People who are targeted can also receive small amounts of money to convince them of the legitimacy of the platform. The scam is usually a long process in which targets are approached for weeks or months to build trusted relationships.”
The carefully prepared scripts are used to target people on popular services including Facebook, Grindr, Hinge, Instagram, Line, LinkedIn, Meet Me, Muslima, OkCupid, TikTok, Tinder, WeChat and WhatsApp, among other online-dating and social-networking platforms.
Victims who don’t comply, or don’t meet revenue targets, are tortured, it says. Many are told they are working off a debt incurred to transport them to the country in the first place. The debt increases when they are “sold” to new captors, and their families often extorted to free them.
Cambodia and Myanmar
Online-scam slave compounds are believed to have generated at least $7.8 billion in revenue globally in 2021, the U.N. says, with “billions” of that arriving in Southeast Asia, thanks to the region’s many casinos and “special economic zones,” where law enforcement can be lax.
Exact figures about such trafficking are “difficult to estimate because of its clandestine nature and gaps in the official response,” it notes. But “credible estimates” indicate at least 120,000 people have been held in scam compounds in Myanmar and 100,000 more in Cambodia, where the problem is centered on the coastal casino town of Sihanoukville.
A combination of weak government institutions, rampant corruption and visa-free travel across the region have all conspired to make the region vulnerable to scam slavery, the U.N. report says, with traffickers also becoming adept at seamlessly shifting operations across borders.
“States may not have the necessary capacity in, or experience with, the types of investigative techniques required for the investigation and prosecution of allegations of human rights abuses in the context of organized crime and cross-border operations,” the report says.
At best, many officials may not be trained to recognize when foreigners are being trafficked into the country, and many victims furthermore have rights to visa-free entry into the countries, either under each country’s own immigration laws or under the ASEAN visa-free travel program, which waives visa requirements for citizens of the bloc.
But the report also notes the role that corruption plays, and the widespread pattern of officials either turning a blind-eye to – or even actively protecting – the scam compounds for a cut of proceeds.
That has made Myanmar, torn apart by conflict since the February 2021 military coup d’etat, particularly impacted by such trafficking.
“The military coup, ongoing violence and armed conflicts in Myanmar, and the resultant breakdown in the rule of law, have provided fertile ground for an exponential rise in criminal activity,” the report says.
“Following the coup, transnational organised criminal actors were able to widen their existing activities within the country by working with factions within the armed forces and various militia groups,” it says.
“Many of the scam centres in Myanmar are located in weakly regulated – and often porous – border areas which are characterised by a lack of formal law enforcement structures, oversight and accountability.”
Fixing the problem
The emergence of scam compounds since the COVID-19 pandemic has become an increasing focus of world governments, given the transnational nature of its impacts, with victims on both ends of the scam coming from an increasing array of countries worldwide.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June awarded Cambodian journalist Mech Dara with a Hero Award for his groundbreaking work uncovering scam compounds in Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh.
But the problem keeps popping up in new places. This week, the mother of a teenage Laotian girl trapped in a scam compound in Myanmar told Radio Free Asia that her daughter said she would be beaten with a metal bar 50 times if found using a cellphone.
To help end the problem, the U.N. report recommends that Southeast Asian governments focus on training immigration officials to better recognize trafficking of foreigners into their countries, and continuing to combat official corruption that has protected many scam compounds.
But it also says those who come forward about their time trapped in the scam compounds should not be punished for carrying out scams, or for being in the country “illegally” and for working without a labor permit.
“A human rights-based approach to trafficking in persons works to avoid re-victimization and thus recognizes that punishing a victim of trafficking for unlawful acts committed as a consequence of their being trafficked is unjust and hinders the possibility of their recovery,” it says.