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ASEAN nations unite with UNODC to combat organized crime and human trafficking in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian nations, in partnership with UNODC, have initiated a groundbreaking strategy to combat organized crime and human trafficking.

A UN policy report has exposed the pervasive presence of these criminal groups in Myanmar’s border regions, making it challenging for law enforcement to intervene, while trafficking victims remain trapped in remote areas vulnerable to online scams.

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BANGKOK, THAILAND: Southeast Asian nations, in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), have launched a groundbreaking strategy aimed at tackling organized crime and human trafficking in the region.

The initiative, announced in the Thai capital, Bangkok, is set to target criminal activities primarily linked to casinos, while also addressing money laundering and cybercrime.

Officials from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), joined by China, and representatives from UNODC, unveiled the comprehensive plan of action.

The new plan aims to strengthen preventative measures and enhance the capabilities of law enforcement agencies to combat international organized crime and human trafficking on a regional scale.

“Trafficking in persons connected to casinos and scam operations run by organized crime has mushroomed across Southeast Asia, particularly in the Mekong” remarked Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Regional Representative to Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“There is an urgent need for regional cooperation to address these increasingly integrated and interlinked crimes in the region, as well as the ecosystem they exist in.”

Human trafficking, often utilized to recruit victims into criminal activities, is just one facet of transnational organized crime, as highlighted in a policy report released by UNODC on Tuesday (26 Sep).

This criminal activity is closely associated with border casinos, large-scale money laundering operations, cybercrimes, and an array of other illicit offenses. The report also documented credible instances of torture and extortion within these criminal operations over the past year.

Profits generated by criminal organizations in the region have reached unprecedented levels, with illicit funds increasingly funneled through the regional casino industry and other cash-intensive businesses, including the surge in cryptocurrency usage.

“Organized crime groups are converging in the region where they see vulnerabilities,” Mr. Douglas commented.

Billions siphoned equal to half of a Nation’s GDP

He added that “operations against syndicates in some countries like the Philippines have caused a partial displacement, and we have seen criminals moving infrastructure into places where they see opportunity – basically where they expect they will be able to take advantage and not be held to account, to remote and border areas of the Mekong,” he said.

According to the report, scam operations in one Southeast Asian country are estimated to generate a staggering US$7.5 and US$12.5 billion, or half the value of that country’s GDP.

“One group of trafficking victims can generate hundreds of thousands of US dollars in a week for traffickers,” the report noted.

UN Policy Report highlights transnational crime gangs establishing remote bases in Myanmar

The UN’s policy report has shed light on the alarming presence of organized crime gangs operating in the border areas of Myanmar, adjacent to China.

These remote locations, often inaccessible to law enforcement, serve as operational hubs for criminal syndicates perpetrating online scams, leaving trafficking victims with scant chances of escape.

Powerful Chinese and Taiwanese criminal organizations, operating primarily in the Mekong region and the Philippines, have orchestrated a “scamdemic” resulting in billions of dollars being siphoned off through tactics that include romance scams, extortion, and investment pyramid schemes.

While certain crackdowns have been executed in Cambodia and the Philippines, these criminal groups are evolving and perfecting their fraudulent activities from fortified compounds located within the protective umbrella of ethnic rebel groups in the conflict-ridden terrain of Myanmar.

Locations of casinos and scam centres in Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar (source: UN report)

In Myanmar, a significant hub for criminal activities has flourished in the Myawaddy region, situated just across a small river from the western Thai border town of Mae Sot.

Another network of compounds stretches along Myanmar’s eastern border with China, extending northward through Shan State, passing through the special administrative area of Wa State, and reaching Kokang, which shares a border with China’s Yunnan province.

Transnational crime syndicates operating openly and forming unusual alliances

The report has found that, rather than operating in the shadows, transnational organised crime groups there can be remarkably open, in some cases presenting themselves as legitimate business entities or even philanthropic organisations.

Some organised crime chiefs have developed public alliances with influential business leaders and officials.

Co-chaired by the Philippines and UNODC, the new plan is finalised and will be tabled by the Philippines at the next ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting on Transnational Crime.

“Addressing this issue in one or a few countries’ domestic contexts, while necessary and welcome, will not have a significant impact,” warned Rebecca Miller, UNODC Regional Advisor on Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling.

“The plan the region has agreed to, includes practical and targeted actions to address transnational crime comprehensively and strategically.  Progress is being made, but more needs to be done and UNODC stands ready to support,” she added.

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