Beating scams, trafficking no easy task
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Beating scams, trafficking no easy task

Police and officials rescue 99 Thai workers lured to Phnom Penh to work at an online casino, in this file photo from Nov 18, 2021. Royal Thai Police
Police and officials rescue 99 Thai workers lured to Phnom Penh to work at an online casino, in this file photo from Nov 18, 2021. Royal Thai Police

This region has been in the news in recent weeks in regard to online scams and human trafficking, compounded by other forms of exploitation such as forced labour and forced criminality.

Many countries have been affected by extensive criminal networks preying on people via cyberspace. In Southeast Asia, Thailand, China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam all appear as concerned countries. The cobweb of crimes corroding respect for human rights reaches out far and wide, even to North America and Africa.

The world is not short of standards to counter the phenomenon. The key international treaty to which most countries are parties is the protocol concerning human trafficking, especially trafficking of women and children ("the Palermo Protocol"), an adjunct to the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.

This agreement advocates preventive action, law enforcement and cooperation, with due regard for effective help accessing the victims.

Yet counteraction is difficult due to the clandestine criminal networks using extensive digital/internet cross-links which can be called "surreptitious syndication".

A typical situation is that, intermixed with online gambling (which might be illegal in the country), people are lured to become cyber-scammers to scam or prey on other people.

There is thus a duplicitous chain and enchained situation whereby a scammed person might be forced to scam and swindle other persons. If the scammer fails to deliver the goods or refuses to comply with the orders, the person might be tortured or locked in compounds surrounded by barbed wire and iron fencing to prevent escape of those who are held on the premises.

There might be an eerie quiet surrounding the compounds where the people are held against their will, because those precincts are like a maze, hidden behind the surrounding walls, where people are quietly and insidiously tapping online to bait other victims.

If the scammer fails to meet the target of further scamming, the person might be sold into other abusive situations. There have been reports of tragic situations of victims fleeing by jumping from their walled buildings to try to escape.

Rescues are difficult to pull off and depend much upon whether the victims are able to relay messages to the outside for help. This is all the more complicated since, in the compounds, mobile phones might be confiscated by the crime syndicates behind the activity.

Countries are now waking up to the phenomenon and need to activate countermeasures more strongly on the basis of national and international cooperation. There are various elements of note.

First, by contrast with a decade ago when some countries were a source rather than a destination country of these abuses, those countries might be faced with the challenge of becoming a destination country.

Second, the group of victims is now different from before. While it was the poor and vulnerable who were often duped in the past, today's victims often are skilled and computer-savvy.

Third, precisely because this cyber-phenomenon is cross-border, countries have to explore more cooperation of an innovative kind that requires not only law enforcement cooperation but techno-digital know-how.

Countries of origin can explore links with the destination country through mutual legal assistance arrangements, extradition treaties and MOUs and protocols which help to expose the situation and the perpetrators.

One source country is now warning its nationals at the airport to beware of online scams if they are hoping to reap benefits from working online in the destination for suspicious employers.

Fourth, there is a need for specific law enforcement units that have the wherewithal and the drive to act effectively, particularly to inspect opaque compounds and investigate their operations.

Fifth, cooperation may need to be sought from the platform industry to help monitor scams, bearing in mind the need to respect freedom of expression under international human rights law.

Various "cyber-windows of opportunities" are recommended for application. Source countries need to trigger a more creative information campaign to forewarn their citizens not to be duped online.

Law enforcers need to be more proactive to track and apprehend crime syndicates before they are able to extend their scamming to other countries. Destination countries should establish mechanisms and processes to identify victims and separate victims from other categories; even if they entered the country illegally, if they were tricked by scams, they should be recognised and treated as victims rather than as illegal immigrants.

This can be complemented by organising "public inquiries" based on hearings to assess the situation, with access to non-traditional sources, such as interviewing cleaners, cooks, food deliverers, security guards and other personnel who work in the compounds suspected of being involved in criminality, and using that participatory process to mobilise governmental and other action based on human rights.

Effective measures are advocated to investigate cases, inspect the various precincts consistently, and create easy-to-reach contacts to rescue victims.

This is also a timely opportunity to be cautious and assess the presence of the large variety of Internet-related laws to ensure compliance with human rights, in the quest to counter crimes.

Some countries have an overload of laws, including a criminal code, national security law, emergency decree, telecommunications law, media-related laws, computer crimes law, cybersecurity law and internet gateway law or decree which need review and reform if they are unreasonable.

They have to be measured to guarantee that they are not arbitrary and are necessary and proportionate to address the risks. There is a need for vigilance against non-democratic elements co-opting these laws for their own ends, amidst their politicised chicanery and rhetoricized shenanigans.

In particular, the internet gateway law in various settings currently opens the door to excessive state control and systemic surveillance; it exceeds what is permissible to comply with human rights. It needs to be suspended and repealed. Rather than more laws, more victim-sensitive law enforcement and supportive recovery measures are essential, inspired by the adage "prevention is better than cure".

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University. He has also helped the UN as a pro bono Special Rapporteur, Independent Expert and member of UN-appointed Commissions of Inquiry on Human Rights.

Vitit Muntarbhorn

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He has helped the UN in a number of pro bono positions, including as the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; and the first UN Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and was a member of the UN COI on Syria. He is currently UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, under the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (2021- ). He is the recipient of the 2004 UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize and was bestowed a Knighthood (KBE) in 2018. His latest book is “Challenges of International Law in the Asian Region”

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