The US Department of State (DOS) has described the trafficking of humans through casinos across Asia as a growing concern, with the practice particularly prevalent in Special Economic Zones and border towns such as Sihanoukville in Cambodia and the infamous “Golden Triangle”.
The issue was outlined in the department’s 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report, which also names Burma, Cambodia and Macau among a small list of Asian jurisdictions ranked Tier 3 (from a total of four tiers), described as “Countries whose governments do not fully meet the TVPA (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”
Noting that some traffickers had taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic by leveraging pandemic-related economic hardships, increased global youth unemployment and international travel restrictions to exploit thousands, the DOS said that forced criminality in cyber scam operations had emerged as a trend that has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry over the last two years – often using casinos and other shell companies as cover.
“Casinos and shell companies operating in unused hotels and other rented and bespoke commercial spaces have become hotspots for this growing criminal activity – especially within remote special economic zones, border towns and other jurisdictionally complex geographic areas known for human rights impunity and minimal law enforcement penetration,” the report says.
“Fearing significant downturns in revenue stemming from pandemic-related restrictions, and witnessing widespread unemployment during the pandemic, traffickers in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Ghana, and Türkiye – including some with connections to the People’s Republic of China (PRC – saw an opportunity [and] used fake job listings to recruit adults and children from dozens of countries.”
According to the DOC, one of the biggest areas of concern is the China-based organized crime syndicates posing as labor brokers using social media to recruit East African and Asian workers with English proficiency or technical backgrounds for promising, lucrative jobs supposedly in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and elsewhere in the region. However, upon arrival, victims are transported to large compounds known as “scam factories” and located in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and the Philippines, where their passports are confiscated and they experience physical and sexual violence. They are then forced to run online scams including quota-based fraudulent sales; illegal online gambling and investment schemes; and romance scams.
Despite the bleak outlook, the DOS noted that some nations have begun to mobilize resources and strategies to locate citizens, remove them from their exploitative circumstances and even initiate accountability processes. These include Taiwan, which in 2022 located and repatriated hundreds of individuals from cyber scam operations in Cambodia and indicted dozens of Taiwanese individuals allegedly complicit in their initial recruitment.
It also pointed to Laos which in 2021 “began cooperating with international authorities to recover Lao victims from the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Bokeo and, despite access challenges and the pervasive impediment of local official corruption, initiated investigations into labor trafficking allegations.”
The DOC said the number of people trafficked across the world each year numbered in the millions.