Leaders from the 10 Southeast Asian states pledged this week to crack down on criminal hubs run by gangs who kidnap jobseekers to run online fraud schemes.
Thousands of people are said to be held against their will – and forced to work in online scams – in special economic zones run by criminal networks on the Thai-Myanmar border, in northern Laos and some parts of Cambodia.
Chinese triad and and local mafia groups are believed to run many of the zones, such as settlements near Myawaddy town in eastern Myanmar just across the river from Thailand, which have long been accused of preying on poor and vulnerable people seeking work.
Leaders who attended a meeting in Indonesia for a summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) called for a regional approach to combat human trafficking.
Chinese crime gangs running cyber-scams
ASEAN leaders issued their first declaration this week on the danger of traffickers’ cyber scams, noting “the increasing abuse of technology in facilitating trafficking in persons in Southeast Asia and globally, proliferated through the use and abuse of social media and other online platforms”.
UN officials say organised crime gangs have taken over parts of special economic zones and trafficking both people and large quantities of illicit drugs, laundering the proceeds of unregulated casinos and online gambling for people in neighbouring countries via easy-to-access fintech apps and call-centres involved in crypto scams.
Thousands of people are reported to have been trapped in these cyber-scam and call-centre operations, where they are captive and forced to defraud strangers, after being lured by social media posts promising well-paid jobs in parts of Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.
Hundreds are said to have been taken from northwest Thailand across the river to Myanmar and forced to work in call centres on land under the control of a Border Guard Force allied to the Myanmar military, thus operating with a level of impunity.
Over 1,000 victims rescued recently
There has been a spike in cases of people enslaved in cyber scams, and more than 1,000 victims have been rescued just in recent days.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry said that 20 Indonesian citizens who had been trafficked to Myanmar as part of a cyber-scam were repatriated last Sunday.
In a separate operation, officials in the Philippines said more than 1,000 people from across Asia were rescued in night raids last week. The victims were forced to work up to 18 hours a day in cryptocurrency scams, police said.
ASEAN’s efforts to combat human trafficking will include enhancing the capacity of law enforcement agencies to investigate, collect data, exchange information and conduct joint exercises, the declaration said.
The towns of Poipet and Sihanoukville in Cambodia have been hotspots for cybercrime rings but networks, which civil society groups say are often linked to Chinese criminal gangs, have since expanded to parts of eastern Myanmar, near Myawaddy town, and the Golden Triangle SEZ in northern Laos.
Experts say the trafficked captives are held in large compounds in converted casinos in Cambodia, and facilities beside the Moei river, which forms part of the long Thai-Myanmar border.
- Jim Pollard with Reuters
NOTE: This report was updated with minor edits and an additional link on May 13, 2023.