- By Kelly Ng
- BBC News, Singapore
A new UN report estimates that hundreds of thousands of people from around the world have been trafficked to Southeast Asia to run online scams.
Most victims are men from Asia, but some have come from further afield such as Africa and Latin America.
While the problem has existed for years, the UN report is the first comprehensive study of its scale.
As pandemic-related shutdowns saw millions of people stuck in their homes and spending more time online, they became ready targets for the masterminds of online fraud schemes, according to the report.
And while criminal gangs have traditionally preyed on less-educated people desperate to make a quick buck, they are now targeting victims with professional jobs, who often have graduate or even post-graduate degrees.
Many of these places where people are forced into cybercrime are in jurisdictions where governance and the rule of law are weak, and authority is contested, the report said.
“In continuing to call for justice for those who have been defrauded through online criminality, we must not forget that this complex phenomenon has two sets of victims,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.
The UN estimates that these scams centres generate billions of US dollars in revenue per year.
Various media outlets including the BBC have spoken extensively to people who have fallen victim to these criminal networks.
Often, they are lured by ads promising easy work and extravagant perks, then tricked into travelling to Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand.
Once they arrive, they are held prisoner and forced to work in online scam centres. Those who do not comply face threats to their safety. Many have been subject to torture and inhuman treatment.
Some networks also target people seeking love and romance – in what’s often known as “pig-butchering” scams. In a tragic case last year, a 25-year-old Malaysian was tortured to death after he went to Bangkok to meet a “girlfriend” he had only spoken to online.
Instead, he was trafficked to Myanmar and forced to work for companies involved in online scams. In one of his last calls to his parents, he said he had been beaten up for allegedly faking illness. He died after being in intensive care for a month.
Existing regulations in many Southeast Asian countries often fall short of international standards and have “in large part” failed to respond adequately to how online scam operations have evolved since the pandemic, the UN said.
Pia Oberoi, a senior adviser on migration at the UN Human Rights Office, said many more cases had gone unreported because the victims face “stigma and shame” for the work they had been tricked into doing.
The report added that an appropriate response should “not merely [involve] addressing organised crime or enforcing border controls”, but should provide protection and justice for these victims of trafficking.
Mr Türk called for governments to be resolute in cracking down on these criminal networks.
“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,” he said.