The US government has called on mostly Asian governments to “prioritise” crackdowns on casino operators and others linked to cyber scamming and human trafficking operations.
The US Department of State’s 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report released this month has placed greater emphasis on growing cyber scam operations and the enslavement of largely imported workers that staff them.
“Judicial authorities should prioritise the investigation, prosecution, conviction, sentencing, and incarceration of recruiters, brokers, and casino owners and operators knowingly perpetrating forced criminality in online cyber scam operations,” the report says.
The report cites the proliferation of cyber scamming and human trafficking in Southeast Asia in particular, often with links to Chinese owners.
“Casinos and shell companies operating in unused hotels and other rented and bespoke commercial spaces have become hotspots for this growing criminal activity,” it says.
This is especially the case “within remote special economic zones, border towns, and other jurisdictionally complex geographic areas known for human rights impunity and minimal law enforcement penetration”.
Cambodia and Myanmar received the brunt of the report’s criticism, with both nations labelled as “Tier 3” jurisdictions, or those that do not meet minimum standards of protection and compliance in US human trafficking law and are not attempting to do so.
It notes that in addition to casino-based cyber scamming operations, Myanmar casinos run by ethnic militia, Chinese and Thai companies feature “trafficked women and girls” for prostitution and slave labour, including Thai and Malaysian women in the Shwe Ko Ko casino[s].
Controlled by the Karen ethnic militia, the Shwe Ko Ko compound on the Thai border is one of two locations in the area whose electricity was cut off by Thai providers in early June, in conjunction with the ruling Myanmar junta.
Cambodia is also subject to rigorous criticism over widespread cyber-scamming operations, which triggered angry denials from officials in Phnom Penh.
However, the report notes that Cambodia’s ban on online gambling announced in late 2019 resulted in the closure of “many [Chinese] national-owned casinos and other entertainment establishments” and “has reduced such trafficking”.
The role of online gambling operations in this network is also only briefly alluded to despite long-standing links between them.
The report, however, saved some praise for neighbouring Laos, which was ranked as “Tier 2” for making “significant efforts” at compliance.
The landlocked nation has long been the home of the US-blacklisted Kings Romans Casino, which has been implicated in diverse criminal enterprises.
Other Laotian casinos have also been involved in cyber scamming and human trafficking operations with the growth of the phenomenon in the wider region, and continue to incarcerate and enslave local women who cannot meet sales quotas as online “chat girls”, the report says.
Two other notable entries in this report are the Philippines and Macau, which maintained assessments of Tier 1 and Tier 3, respectively, despite years of reports of enslavement in the Philippines of Chinese workers at foreign-facing online gambling companies (POGOs) and protection of their staffing channels by corrupt immigration officials.
This year’s report makes no mention of the nation’s casinos, but includes the briefest of references to cyber scam operations at POGOs.
The recent rescue of more than 1,100 enslaved foreign and Filipino workers from a compound in Clark Freeport points to a tension between the Philippines’ desirability as a base for criminal activity, the ability of Philippine officials to address the problem and where the State Department considers responsibility to lie.
Meanwhile, Macau’s ongoing Tier 3 classification contains the repeated accusation of unnamed casinos working with gangsters in the sex trade.
“Casinos and other entertainment establishments reportedly allow staff to partner with criminal networks to allow illegal commercial sex activities within their establishments, likely facilitating sex trafficking,” according to the 2022 version of the report.
The Macau government late last week called the State Department report “capricious” and accused it of using “unreal information and data”.