By Sen Nguyen | South China Morning Post

A Malaysian man rescued from a human trafficking syndicate in Myanmar is given a hug upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur in December. He said he was duped with the promise of a high salary through job adverts on social media. — AFP

Southeast Asian nations are failing to protect people from being trafficked into scam networks, according to rights activists, who are demanding swift action from ASEAN to rescue victims of syndicates running multimillion-dollar criminal enterprises inside the bloc.

Asia’s scam centres have reeled in an untold number of people with the promise of high-paying jobs overseas which later turn out to be online cons, targeting victims across the world with bogus romance or investment opportunities.

To regain their freedom victims must pay several thousand dollars “ransoms” for their release from the networks, or attempt dangerous escapes from compounds protected by armed guards and razor wire.

Campaigners in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia have lodged a formal complaint with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), the region’s main human rights institution, hoping to trigger legal duties to protect trafficking victims, according to a copy of the document shared with This Week In Asia.

“We are talking about potentially thousands of victims, from every single ASEAN country,” said Maya Linstrum-Newman, international advocacy officer of the Bangkok-based Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW).

The situation cannot be solved by one country alone, she added, and needs ASEAN “to come together and take decisive action. This is why we have turned to AICHR for help”.

All ASEAN member nations, except Brunei, were named in the complaint, which was made alongside civil society organisations Tenaganita in Malaysia and Migrant Care in Indonesia and submitted on February 10.

The scam networks are dominated by Chinese gangs who transformed empty casinos into houses for massive fraud operations early on in the pandemic.

Lurid revelations of violence, human trafficking, and coercion in scam compounds in Cambodia are in clear sight of the authorities, forcing many networks to uproot from Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville to remote border areas near Thailand and Vietnam, experts say.

Others have moved to special economic zones in Laos or rebel-controlled areas of Myanmar, beyond the reach of the authorities and where some of the most egregious allegations of abuse have emerged.

Despite widespread publicity over the scammers’ tactics, security experts say sophisticated, layered fraud schemes are still highly active.

The trafficked victims tend to be well-educated, computer-literate, and speak at least one regional language, on top of English or Mandarin. This means they are not stereotypical trafficking victims, according to Linstrum-Newman of GAATW.

Malaysian Goi Chee Kong shows a picture of his son Goi Zhen Feng, who died after falling prey to human trafficking syndicates. — AP

“This is perhaps one of the reasons why the authorities have failed to protect people on such an enormous scale,” she said.

The group urged ASEAN members to stop prosecuting victims of trafficking or detaining them under immigration laws once freed from a scam syndicate, and called on consular offices to offer citizens repatriation assistance free of charge.

The complaint to AICHR said countries are failing to proactively investigate media reports of nationals being held by traffickers and are not taking prompt action to obtain their release, instead waiting for victims’ families to ask for help.

Such approaches contravene ASEAN’s 2015 Convention Against Trafficking, the complaint alleges, which legally binds member states to prevent trafficking and protect victims under domestic and regional laws.

Hundreds of Chinese detainees in Putrajaya, Malaysia, in November 2019, when the nation said it had broken up a China-based online investment scam. Dozens of other suspects managed to flee. — AP

“For the three destination countries – Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar – support from [embassy] representatives tends to be ineffective, especially in Myanmar and Laos,” said a representative from the Indonesian NGO Migrant Care, who did not want to be named out of safety concerns.

He cited the case of two Indonesian victims, whose identities were not revealed for their protection. They did not receive immediate help from their embassies in Laos and Myanmar and ended up paying US$5-10,000 respectively to traffickers for their release.

Many faced prosecution when they got home for taking part in online fraud. The complaint to ASEAN cites media coverage that includes examples from Thailand, where about 70 per cent of repatriated victims have been prosecuted.

NGOs said they were told the formal complaint would be discussed with all AICHR representatives in the body’s next meeting at the end of February.

This Week in Asia’s requests for comments from AICHR did not receive an immediate reply.

AICHR is made up of 10 human rights commissioners appointed by their respective governments. As an intergovernmental consultative body, it does not have any official compliance or enforcement measures.

“In my opinion, that is the problem with our regional human rights commission, that really you can only go so far,’’ said lawyer Edmund Bon Tai Soon, former Malaysian representative to the AICHR.

“In terms of actual regional mechanisms where we don’t have a court, where our [human rights] commission does not have the powers and mandate, it then really just relies on the effectiveness of the judicial mechanisms in the particular country.”

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