In 2022, a high-profile rescue operation was carried out by Thai authorities, liberating two dozen individuals held captive by criminal Chinese gangs operating scam centers from a building in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. This harrowing incident serves as a stark reminder of the rampant human trafficking and forced labor situation that has been escalating across Southeast Asia in recent years. This information comes courtesy of the United Nations, in a comprehensive report released earlier this week.
Based on the UN report, which relies on inputs from trustworthy sources, there’s the likelihood of approximately 120,000 individuals in Myanmar and nearly 100,000 in Cambodia being ensnared in these fraudulent schemes. Similar illegal ventures – from cryptocurrency fraud to illicit online gambling – opportunely run by crime syndicates are prevalent in other Southeast Asian countries, including Laos, the Philippines, and Thailand.
Volker Turk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated in no uncertain terms, “The individuals subjected to coercion to participate in these fraudulent ventures, who endure appalling conditions while being forced into criminal activities, are victims, not perpetrators.”
Commenting on the UN report, Cambodian police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun expressed skepticism regarding the estimated number of victims. Expressing his confusion, he said, “I’m at a loss for how to react – where did this 100,000 figure come from? Have there been thorough investigations to corroborate this? From where was this data sourced? Foreign entities seem to me to be merely speculating.”
Myanmar’s military-backed government remained unresponsive when approached for comments on the situation.
This report from the UN Human Rights Office represents one of the most insightful accounts of the rapid surge in these scams after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The closure of casinos acted as a catalyst pushing these criminal entities into less monitored sectors of Southeast Asia.
According to the report, these rapidly proliferating scam outfits accrue billions of US dollars annually. It’s been highlighted that, “Adapting to new operational realities, these criminal elements have targeted vulnerable migrants, roping them into these unlawful operations under the pretense of providing them legitimate employment opportunities.”
The report further clarified that while most trafficking victims hail from other Southeast Asian countries or regions such as China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, recruitment isn’t limited to these regions. Victims have also been reported as coming from as far off places as Africa and Latin America.
In an effort to curb the thriving illegal ventures, the UN rights office urged regional governments to fortify the rule of law, intensify efforts to address corruption, and “dismantle the cycle of impunity”.