Hundreds of thousands of people are being coerced in Southeast Asia by criminal gangs into carrying out online scams, often under the threat of torture, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Many have been trafficked into working in online criminality and face serious violations such as torture or sexual violence, the UN said in a report.
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“People who are coerced into working in these scamming operations endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes,” UN human rights chief Volker Turk said.
“They are victims. They are not criminals.”
The scale of the scourge in Southeast Asia is difficult to gauge because of the practice's clandestine nature and gaps in the response by authorities, the report noted.
However, it said that credible sources indicated that at least 120,000 people across Myanmar may be held in situations where they are forced to carry out online scams.
Estimates in Cambodia are at around 100,000, it added.
Laos, the Philippines, and Thailand are among other nations in the region identified as the main countries of destination or transit.
The scam centers generate revenue amounting to billions of dollars a year, the UN said.
Victims come from across the ASEAN region, mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Asia and further afield from Africa and Latin America.
Most people trafficked into the online scam operations are men, although women and teens are also victims, the report said.
The illicit networks benefited from the COVID-19 pandemic, which in some countries saw casinos closed under public health measures.
This led to casino operators moving to less regulated spaces, including conflict-affected border areas, and online, the report said.
The COVID-19 crisis also left many migrants more vulnerable, stranded in countries and out of work due to border and business closures.
Lockdowns also saw people spending more time online and susceptible to becoming targets of online fraud, the report said.
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