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UN Report exposes alarming rise of cybercrime and human trafficking in Southeast Asia ahead of ASEAN 2023 Summit

As the ASEAN 2023 Summit approaches in Jakarta, the UN exposes Southeast Asia’s alarming job crisis.

Cybercrime scams have emerged as a grave concern, trapping hundreds of thousands in human trafficking schemes, with Myanmar and Cambodia witnessing the highest victim counts of 120,000 and 100,000, respectively.



INDONESIA: With the ASEAN 2023 Summit just around the corner in Jakarta, the United Nations (UN) has released an alarming report shedding light on the precarious job situation in Southeast Asia.

It appears that the ASEAN region has become a hotbed for online scammers, with hundreds of thousands of individuals worldwide falling victim to human trafficking schemes specifically designed for online fraud.

The UN report estimates that at least 120,000 people in Myanmar and 100,000 in Cambodia have been coerced into becoming online scammers.

While most victims originate from Asia, individuals from other countries, including Africa and Latin America, have also fallen prey to these criminal networks.

This comprehensive UN study, the first of its kind, uncovers the vast scale of the issue. During the pandemic’s quarantine measures, millions of people found themselves isolated at home, spending more time online.

As highlighted in the report, this made them susceptible targets for online scam operations.

Unlike traditional criminal gangs that typically target individuals with lower education levels and desperate financial situations, these scammers specifically prey on professionals, many of whom hold bachelor’s or postgraduate degrees.

Most of the coerced individuals come from countries with weak governance structures and disputed authorities, according to the report.

Several Indonesian citizens who were suspected victims of human trafficking in Myanmar appealed for help from Indonesian authorities. After going viral, they were evacuated from Myanmar. (Photo: BBC News Indonesia)

“In our ongoing efforts to advocate for justice for those duped by online crimes, we must not forget that this complex phenomenon involves two groups of victims,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.

The two victim groups identified in the report are those trapped in online scams and those forced to become scammers. Victims of online scams suffer financial losses, while those coerced into scamming become victims of human rights violations.

The UN estimates that these online fraud networks generate millions of dollars annually. Various media outlets, including the BBC, have extensively covered this issue, sharing stories from victims of online fraud networks.

Trapped in a web of deceit

Often, individuals are lured in by social media ads promising easy jobs and luxurious amenities, only to be deceived into travelling to countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand.

In some cases, victims are unaware they have crossed international borders, as their tickets and documentation are handled by the scammers.

Upon arrival, potential workers are typically picked up by smugglers and taken to temporary accommodations or directly to closed residential compounds, where they are forced to work.

Armed guards monitor them, and their possessions, including passports, are confiscated. In addition to physical threats, debt is used as a weapon by recruiters.

Victims must pay various fees, including arrival costs, training fees, and fines for underperformance. Sometimes, these debts are collected from the victims’ families before they can leave, with photos of the victims sent as evidence.

“In some instances, people have attempted to escape, including by jumping from compounds or swimming across rivers (such as from Myanmar to Thailand or Cambodia to Vietnam), but these efforts often end unsuccessfully, either in death or severe punishment upon recapture,” the OHCHR stated.

Some of these networks also target their victims romantically, a practice known as “romance scamming.”

In a tragic case from late last year, a 25-year-old Malaysian man was tortured to death after travelling to Bangkok to meet a “lover” he had met online.

Instead of encountering his intended partner, he fell victim to deception and was trafficked to Myanmar to participate in online fraud. During his last conversation with his parents, he confessed to enduring physical abuse for feigning illness, and tragically, he succumbed to his injuries after a month of intensive medical care.

Many Southeast Asian countries’ regulations often fall short of international standards, and “most” have failed to adequately respond to the proliferation of online fraud operations since the pandemic, according to the UN.

Pia Oberoi, a senior advisor for migration at the UN Human Rights Office, stated that many cases go unreported because victims face “stigma and shame” regarding their line of work.

The report emphasizes that an appropriate response should not only involve dealing with organized crime or border control but should also provide protection and justice for human trafficking victims.

Indonesians have also become victims of this illicit business. Prospective workers are often lured with promises of high wages and instructed to fly to other ASEAN countries such as Myanmar, Laos, or Cambodia. Instead, they end up working as online scammers under inhumane conditions.

Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud Md disclosed the performance of the Indonesian National Police’s Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force (Satgas TPPO) from June 5 to July 3, 2023. (Photo:

UN Report unveils alarming rise in online scams and human trafficking since 2021

According to the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) report, the issues of online scams and human trafficking have escalated since 2021.

“As of the writing of this report, the situation is still evolving, with hundreds of thousands of people from the region and beyond being forced into online crime,” the OHCHR report states.

Highlighted activities in the OHCHR report include fraudulent investment solicitations disguised as romance, money laundering, illegal gambling, and cryptocurrency fraud.

“Many people have lost their life savings, accumulated debts, and suffered shame and stigma due to falling victim to scams. On the other hand, individuals forced to work in these scam operations and subjected to inhumane treatment are serious human rights violations,” the OHCHR emphasized.

The OHCHR explains that the issue of online scams is inherently complex and poses three significant law enforcement challenges:

  1. Difficulty in prosecuting transnational organized crime actors.
  2. Challenges in protecting human rights in the digital realm.
  3. Issues in accessing scam operations located in areas with weak oversight.

One example of the challenges faced by Indonesia relates to the third issue. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi previously raised concerns about evacuating Indonesian nationals who were coerced into online scam work in Myawaddy, Myanmar.

The region is difficult to reach due to ongoing conflict in Myanmar and its geographical location on the Thailand-Myanmar border, making it distant from Indonesia’s diplomatic representation.

The OHCHR also highlighted the lack of training for frontline personnel, such as border guards, in identifying human trafficking victims. Language differences further exacerbate these issues.

As previously reported, the Indonesian National Police’s Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force (Satgas TPPO) has rescued a total of 2,497 human trafficking victims since its establishment on June 5, 2023.

“The Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, established by the President and led by the Chief of Police, has enforced the law by rescuing 2,497 victims,” said Inspector General Police Sandi Nugroho, the Head of the National Police Public Relations Division, during the 17th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC) in Labuan Bajo on 21 August.

In addition to rescuing victims, the task force has filed 771 police reports and arrested 924 suspects. This reflects the Indonesian National Police’s commitment to addressing human trafficking and contributes to the shared goal of a human trafficking-free ASEAN region.

“The key is coordination, communication, and collaboration,” it was stated. The international community eagerly anticipates the discussions and actions that will result from the upcoming ASEAN 2023 Summit, with the hope of addressing these critical issues plaguing Southeast Asia.

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