“Victims face a range of serious violations and abuses, including threats to their safety and security; and many have been subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, forced labour, and other human rights abuses,” said UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Jeremy Laurence.
Laurence said that the enormity of online scam trafficking in Southeast Asia is difficult to estimate because of the clandestine nature and gaps in the official response.
The report cites credible sources which indicate that at least 120,000 people across Myanmar may be held in situations where they are forced to carry out online scams, with estimates in Cambodia similarly at around 100,000. Other States in the region including Lao PDR, the Philippines and Thailand have also been identified as main countries of destination or transit where at least tens of thousands of people have been involved. The scam centres generate revenue amounting to billions of US dollars each year.
Most people trafficked into the online scam operations are men, although women and adolescents are also among the victims, the report says. Most are not citizens of the countries in which the trafficking occurs. Victims come from across the ASEAN region (from Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), as well as mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, South Asia and even further afield from Africa and Latin America.
“While some countries in Southeast Asia have put in place legal and policy frameworks relevant to counter trafficking, in some cases they fall short of international standards. In many cases their implementation has failed to respond adequately to the context and sophistication of these online scams,” Laurence said.
The people who are coerced into working in these scamming operations endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes.
“They are victims. They are not criminals. 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,” Laurence stressed.
Pia Oberoi, Senior Advisor on Migration and Human Rights (OHCHR), who authored the report, detailed some of the scams.
“One of the main ones that we hear about is the so-called ‘pig butchering scheme’ where the targets of the scam are approached in a romance kind of scam and basically scammed out of their money, thinking that they are speaking to somebody who is interested to be romantically involved with them. And in fact, last year we learnt about the tragic death of a person from Malaysia who had travelled into Thailand and then been trafficked into Myanmar thinking that she was thinking that she was responding to the advances of somebody,” she said.
Oberoi continued: “But because of the stigma of having been scammed, they will not be reporting this. They'd rather kind of not suffer that shame and stigma of having been the victim of a scam. And in the same vein, people that have been trafficked into these scam compounds suffer not just physical abuse and mental abuse, but financial ruin in many cases because they have taken on debts and then to release themselves from these scam compounds to take on more debt. But they also take on stigma and shame, particularly, as we said, because of the profile of these people. They're not uneducated.”
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