Trafficking for the purpose of forced criminality in Laos: HRC’s new project with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime

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May 8, 2024
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Humanity Research Consultancy (HRC) has begun a new project with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) to improve the evidence basis on trafficking in persons (TIP) for the purpose of forced criminality in cyber-scam operations and associated illicit financial flows in Laos.

A complex manifestation of TIP and exploitation for forced criminality has proliferated across mainland Southeast Asia since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a United Nations (UN) report, an estimated hundreds of thousands of people are being held involuntarily in ‘cyber-scam’ operations across Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos, often inside special economic zones (SEZs), repurposed casinos, resorts, or hotels.

Victims are recruited online and deceived by lucrative, but fraudulent, job offers. They are held against their will through debt bondage or the threat of torture and forced to operate online scams (including ‘pig-butchering’ and romance scams). The scams are said to be run by syndicates or ‘investors’ with close links to criminal networks, who are themselves enabled, or sometimes even protected, by significant political cover.

Many of the victims are from Southeast Asia, though recruitment into these operations is taking place across the world. According to media reports, citizens from at least 44 countries have been trafficked to Southeast Asia from elsewhere. The impact of TIP for the purpose of forced criminality is therefore widespread.

As of early 2023, there has been a growing body of literature on the cyber-scam phenomenon, including reports by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Crisis Group, the Regional Support Office of the Bali Process, and local media. However, significant gaps remain around understanding the drivers, enablers, and systemic vulnerabilities that criminal actors are able to exploit, as well as links to other types of crime and the associated monetary flows that are generated.

HRC is working with GI-TOC to gather evidence on the scam centres in Laos, focusing on the prevalence of the scam centres within and outside of the Golden Triangle SEZ, the linkages between fraud and other criminal activities, and the criminal networks involved. The project involves comprehensive desk-based research, encompassing a literature review of external information and analysis of existing information in HRC’s database, a social media analysis of user-generated content on platforms like Facebook, Telegram, and XiaoHongShu (小紅書), and consultations with relevant stakeholders in Laos.

The research on Laos will be published as part of a regional research project that is supported by the Australian Government-funded ASEAN Australia Counter-Trafficking program (ASEAN-ACT) and the Regional Support Office of the Bali Process. The project aims to strengthen the current response to TIP for the purpose of forced criminality by improving the evidence and providing a better understanding of the phenomenon, including associated criminal activities.