The UN report said victims of these human trafficking operations in SE Asia – which generate billions of US dollars each year – face serious violations and abuses.
These include threats to their safety and security. Many have already been subjected to torture, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, forced labour and other human rights abuses.
The UN said “credible sources” indicate criminal actors have forced at least 120,000 people across Myanmar to take part in online criminal behaviour, including illegal gambling.
The international organisation added estimates for Cambodia stand at around 100,000. Tens of thousands more are trafficked in Laos, the Philippines and Thailand.
“People who are coerced into working in these scamming operations endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk. “They are victims. They are not criminals.”
Covid-19 impact on criminal networks
The UN added the Covid-19 pandemic and its response by governments in region had a “drastic impact” on human trafficking operations in South East Asia.
As a result of public health measures, governments closed casinos throughout the region. This led to casino operators moving their activities to less regulated areas. These include near conflict borders, Special Economic Zones and online.
According to the UN, this has led to criminal networks increasingly targeting migrants in vulnerable situations for recruitment.
Demographics of trafficked individuals
Most people trafficked into these unlawful activities are men, although the UN noted women and adolescents also count among the victims. The victims also tend to not be citizens of the country where the trafficking takes place.
The UN highlighted that many of the individuals are well-educated, often possessing graduate and post-graduate degrees. This is because criminals target many for being computer-literate and multi-lingual.
The victims of human trafficking come from across South East Asia, including Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore Thailand and Vietnam.
However, some originate from further afield, with the UN pointing out that people from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Asia and even Africa and Latin America count among the victims.
Involvement of POGOs
The report highlighted many Philippines Offshore Gambling Operations (POGOs) play a significant role in the crimes committed.
President Rodrigo Duterte legalised these operations in 2016. However, regulatory gaps mean many aspects of their activities lie outside of the law.
The UN points to a 2020 Philippines Department of Finance report which estimated more than 230 POGOs were active in the country. This is despite only 60 having licences, while only 10 actually paid taxes.
The country’s gambling regulator Pagcor has cracked down on illicit activities in this sector in a series of raids.
The Philippines government has linked POGOs to offenses including kidnapping, detention of migrant workers, as well as financial crimes.
Human trafficking framework falls short in SE Asia
The UN report said governments have failed across the region to effectively counter the human trafficking threat.
It said despite the existence of legal and policy frameworks in this area, they often “fall short of international standards”.
The UN added implementations have failed to address to the changing environment. Governments are also ill-equipped to deal with the sophistication of online criminal enterprises.
Additionally, governments often identify human trafficking victims as criminals or immigration offenders. This means they do not receive the rehabilitation and support they need. Governments also subject many to criminal prosecution.
“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,” said Türk. “This must be as much a part of the response to these scams as a robust criminal justice response.
“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.”