The United Nations has released a report shedding light on the extensive use of slavery in online and telephone scam centers across Southeast Asia. The report suggests that there may be over a quarter of a million victims of human trafficking and slavery involved in these operations. Credible sources indicate that around 120,000 people in Myanmar and 100,000 in Cambodia are forced to carry out online scams. Other countries in the region, including Lao PDR, the Philippines, and Thailand, have also been identified as destinations or transit points for tens of thousands of victims.
These human trafficking rings specialize in luring job seekers into slavery at scam centers involved in various illegal activities, such as romance-investment scams, crypto fraud, and illegal gambling. These centers generate billions of dollars in illegal revenue annually. The connection between human trafficking and online scam operations has been a concern for international investigators for years.
The report highlights that the problem escalated significantly during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. The closure or relocation of casinos due to the pandemic left many migrants, who relied on these establishments for employment, stranded and vulnerable to human traffickers. The surge in online activity during lockdowns also created a demand for cheap labor to expand scam operations. The increased use of digital payment systems and QR codes during the pandemic further facilitated cybercrime.
Most victims trafficked into these scam centers are men, although women and adolescents are also among the victims. They come from various countries in the ASEAN region, mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The traffickers often deceive young university graduates with attractive job offers abroad, only to kidnap them upon arrival and force them into slavery.
The report highlights the high degree of trust in social media platforms in Southeast Asia, combined with limited regulation protecting users’ rights online, as factors that contribute to the success of these scams. Some scam centers operate as concentration camps, openly conducting business in regions with weak law enforcement. The report also notes instances of law enforcement officials collaborating with traffickers.
Victims in these scam centers face various forms of coercion, including being chained to their desks, confiscation of passports and cell phones, and being kept in debt bondage. Inhumane living conditions, malnutrition, physical abuse, torture, and even execution are used to control and punish those who disobey their captors.