Bangkok (Thailand), 28 June 2023 - Casino and scam operations run by transnational organized crime groups have become a significant and growing problem in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Mekong Sub-region and the Philippines where many have been established. Thousands have been trafficked into the centres for work, and many more have lost money.
“Major organized crime groups have been involved in or running casinos in Southeast Asia for quite a few years, but they went online and then branched out to investment scams in a significant way during the pandemic”, commented Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “The adoption and use of technology has been nothing short of remarkable. We are talking about sophisticated operations with global reach.” Douglas added, “It is also important to consider why criminal groups have found the region so appealing, and what can be done to disrupt their business model – basically make the environment much less attractive, make it difficult and even hostile for them.”
In an effort to address transnational organized crime and human trafficking associated with casinos and scams, the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Philippines –as the ASEAN Lead Shepherd on Trafficking in Persons– and the UNODC Regional Office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific –UNODC is the global guardian of the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime or UNTOC– have held a High-Level Dialogue among ASEAN Member States and the People's Republic of China in Bangkok to initiate the development of a strategic plan to respond. Building on the pledge made by ASEAN leaders at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Indonesia in May 2023 to work together and coordinate and collaborate actions to address human trafficking and associated misuse of technology, the Dialogue provided an opportunity for Southeast Asian countries and China to candidly discuss the situation and move the political commitment forward.
“We urgently need a regional plan of action to address these criminal groups that are exploiting our region and our people”, remarked Eduardo de Vega, Undersecretary of the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs. “It is important we are here today as ASEAN with China and our global partner to address transnational crime UNODC. We have the right people here to discuss and agree on what needs to happen.”
During the Dialogue, delegations from the ASEAN region and China acknowledged the growing complexity of addressing organized crime run casinos and scams that have in many instances legitimized operations by obtaining business licenses or by locating in so-called Special Economic Zones established to attract foreign investment. Tens of thousands of people have subsequently been drawn into engaging the businesses online and defrauded. Participants noted that the groups trafficking people to supply labour for the operations have used professional approaches to recruitment and been well-coordinated.
“The number of people being trafficked to work in the casinos and scam centres has been estimated in the tens of thousands, and while the situation started with victims from the region itself there have been increasing numbers of people brought in from around the world over the past couple of years”, observed Rebecca Miller UNODC Regional Advisor on Migrant Smuggling and Human Trafficking.
Human trafficking though is one just form of transnational organized crime linked to these operations – it is intertwined with fraud, extortion, money laundering, and corruption, with technology underpinning many elements of the crimes. Associated illicit financial flows have grown to a point that they are impacting governance and the stability of some parts of the region.
During active discussions delegations agreed to expand cooperation to combat trafficking in persons and rescue victims while an overarching plan is agreed to disrupt associated transnational organized crime operations. A regional roadmap that can be presented to the ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting on Transnational Crime or SOMTC that includes practical and targeted actions to enhance cross border cooperation will be developed, and different follow-up meetings and activities scheduled. UNODC, as the global guardian of the UNTOC, and a long-term partner of ASEAN and China, will support the Government of Philippines in drafting and circulating the plan.