Hundreds of thousands of people have been trafficked and forced to work for online scamming operations in south-east Asia run by criminal gangs, according to a UN report.
Billions of dollars are being generated each year by gangs who coerce victims into cybercrime, where they are subject to threats, torture and sometimes sexual violence, said the report, published by the UN human rights office on Tuesday.
The UN estimated about 120,000 victims are in Myanmar and 100,000 in Cambodia, while tens of thousands more people are being forced to work in Laos, the Philippines and Thailand.
Many of those involved are skilled and multilingual, lured by the promise of jobs in programming. But they ended up in guarded compounds with their passports and phones seized.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, said countries trying to crack down on scamming operations should remember that people working in them are victims rather than criminals, who “endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes”.
The report’s author, Pia Oberoi, a UN senior adviser on migration and human rights for the Asia Pacific region, said corruption had allowed these operations to flourish.
“It’s so incredibly lucrative that there is very little political will to address this holistically. We see no signs of it really slowing down – other than the actors relocating their operations when there’s some law enforcement pressure,” said Oberoi, adding that “they are being protected in certain ways by the authorities”.
The report said the phenomenon had grown since the Covid pandemic, when casinos were closed and the criminal gangs operating them moved into less regulated spaces, such as cryptocurrency fraud and illegal gambling.
It said many of the victims were migrants who lost their jobs during the pandemic and were unable to move because of lockdowns.
While many of the victims were from south-east Asia, Oberoi said people from southern Asia, Africa and Latin America were also involved.
The thinktank International Crisis Group recently warned that the border of Myanmar and Laos was becoming a hub for transnational crime, including scam operations, money laundering and drug production.
Bryony Lau, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the report emphasised the concerns researchers in the region had about the impact of Myanmar’s 2021 coup on regional security, with criminal groups now having “free-rein” in parts of the country.
“It was a growing phenomenon that has got significantly worse along the Myanmar border since the coup and that is due to a collapse of governance and growing criminality that has really thrived along the Thai-Myanmar border as well as in areas inside Myanmar,” said Lau.