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ASEAN, China, and UNODC agree to a plan of action to address criminal scams in Southeast Asia

UNODC

Bangkok (Thailand), 26 September 2023 – Senior officials from ASEAN, China and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have agreed to address transnational organized crime and trafficking in persons associated with casinos and scams.

“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. He continued, “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.”

Senior officials from ASEAN and China gathered together with UNODC in Bangkok to initiate the development of a strategic plan to respond. Co-chaired by the Philippines and UNODC, the plan is now finalized and will be tabled by the Philippines at the next ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting on Transnational Crime (SOMTC).

The plan includes measures to improve preventive responses, the identification and protection of victims, and the capacities of law enforcement and criminal justice officials to investigate and cooperate.

Trafficking in persons for forced criminality is just one aspect of transnational organized crime in Southeast Asia, according to a policy report also issued today by UNODC. It is often connected to the operations of border casinos, large scale money laundering, cybercrimes, and a range of other criminal offences. There have also been credible reports of torture and extortion in these operations over the past year.

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

Profits of organized crime groups in the region have reached unprecedented levels, and illicit money is increasingly moving through the regional casino industry and other large cash flow businesses, including through a surge in the use of cryptocurrencies. The scam industry in one country in the region alone is estimated to generate between US $7.5 and $12.5 billion, reaching half the value of that country’s gross domestic product (GDP), the report says.

The report has found that, rather than operating or hiding in the shadows, transnational organized crime groups in the region can be remarkably open, in some cases presenting themselves as legitimate business entities or even philanthropists. Some organized crime leaders have also developed alliances with influential business leaders and officials.

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

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