Organized crime gangs force trafficked humans into criminal activities


In a distressing revelation, the UN Human Rights Office has unveiled a harrowing tale of human trafficking, exposing how hundreds of thousands of individuals are being coerced into engaging in online criminal activities across Southeast Asia.

The machinery of organized criminal gangs is compelling victims into participating in various forms of digital crime, ranging from romance investment scams and cryptocurrency fraud to illegal gambling. The victims are subjected to a spectrum of grave violations and abuses, including threats to their safety and well-being. This unsettling reality has been brought to light in a report titled “Online Scams Operations and Trafficking Into Forced Criminality in Southeast Asia: Recommendations for a Human Response”.

The report highlights that those trafficked into the realm of online criminality frequently endure not only inhumane treatment but also outright torture and cruel, degrading punishment. Their ordeal includes arbitrary detention, sexual violence, forced labor, and a myriad of other human rights violations.

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, emphasized, “People who are coerced into working in these scamming operations endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes. They are victims. They are not criminals”.

The report points out that due to the covert nature of the phenomenon and gaps in official response, it is challenging to gauge the full extent of online scam trafficking in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, credible sources suggest that around 120,000 individuals in Myanmar alone might be trapped in situations where they are compelled to execute online scams.

Furthermore, the Philippines and Thailand have also emerged as primary destination transit countries, with tens of thousands of people ensnared in these criminal activities.

The pandemic has exacerbated forced trafficking, particularly as the closure of casinos led criminal operators to exploit less regulated spaces. Vulnerable migrants, stranded due to border and business closures, have become prime targets. The surge in online activity during COVID-19 lockdowns further expanded the pool of potential victims.

Although the majority of those trafficked into online scam operations are men, the report stresses that women and teenagers also fall prey. Shockingly, many victims targeted for trafficking are well-educated individuals, some even possessing professional jobs or graduate degrees. These victims often possess computer literacy and multilingual skills.

While several Southeast Asian countries have enacted legal and policy frameworks to counter human trafficking, there are instances where these measures fall short of international standards. Moreover, the implementation of these frameworks struggles to adequately address the intricacies and sophistication of online scams.

A pressing concern highlighted in the report is the misidentification of trafficking victims as criminals instead of providing them with protection and avenues for rehabilitation and remedy. This erroneous identification often results in criminal prosecution or immigration penalties.

Volker Türk emphasized, “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. This must be as much a part of the response to these scams as a robust criminal justice response”.

While initiatives like ScamWatch in Australia aim to make it tougher for scammers to target victims, the onus appears to be on educating individuals about recognizing scams rather than solely relying on financial institutions to act.

Disturbingly, Australians have reported losses of an astounding $328 million through 182,593 scam reports this year alone. Investment scams constitute the majority, accounting for nearly $200 million. Phishing, false billing, online shopping scams, identity theft, hacking, and classified scams also rank high among the reported fraudulent activities.

Scammers employ various mediums, including phone calls, social networking, emails, internet platforms, mobile apps, and text messages, to carry out their illicit schemes.


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