An immense humanitarian crisis has developed in the Southeast Asian Mekong region due to the growth of online fraud companies and illegal casinos.
Despite attempts to crack down on criminal gangs, the ever-changing nature of human trafficking and illicit scamming activities is becoming an increasingly destructive force.
Recent raids on several casinos in Myanmar's epicenter of human trafficking, Shwe Kokko, led to fierce and deadly fighting between ethnic rebel groups and the Myanmar military. Thousands of people fled to neighboring Thailand.
Meanwhile, the lack of law enforcement in conflict zones like Myanmar has allowed criminals to relocate and rapidly establish new "slave compounds," where trafficking victims are held against their will, abused, tortured, and even killed.
As the scale of the crisis becomes more apparent and traffickers target citizens outside Southeast Asia, civil society groups and rescuers are calling for urgent action to identify and combat these crimes.
Criminals relocate and expand operations
In recent years, Cambodia has emerged as a major destination for human trafficking in Southeast Asia.
The traffickers, many connected to organized criminal gangs, discovered online scams as a lucrative business model and began targeting foreign nationals via different social media apps with offers of well-paid work and accommodation.
The people tricked by the false advertising later find themselves trapped in slave compounds.
In response to international pressure, Cambodian authorities have attempted to clamp down on the syndicates, occasionally raiding compounds and freeing victims. But despite crackdowns across the country, experts and sources on the ground say the crisis isn't going away.
"The pace of the international response is way behind the pace at which this illicit activity is expanding," Jason Tower, country director for the Burma program of United States Institute of Peace (USIP), told DW.
According to Tower, the situation is more serious in places like Myanmar and Laos, where many areas are completely beyond the reach of what little law enforcement exists.
Exploiting the lack of the rule of law, the criminals run online gambling, Ponzi schemes and, increasingly, also engage in wildlife trafficking.
"It is not enough for the traffickers to earn their status among their peers through expensive brand and luxury cars — as they all gain lucrative money through conducting scams," Mina Chiang, director of Humanity Research Consultancy, told DW.
"They have everything they want, so they start engaging in wildlife trafficking and buy exotic animals," she added, expressing serious concerns about the rapidly emerging and interconnected forms of trafficking.
Targeting citizens outside Asia
Victims from over 20 countries have been lured into these operations with the promise of high-tech employment. At gunpoint, they are forced to participate in a double crime scheme in which they are used to scam other victims to lose their money. If they refuse, they face physical and psychological torture.
"It is quite impossible to escape from the compound. Whenever you enter a compound, they buy you as a slave — so they make sure you will stay and work for them," MD Abdus Salam, a trafficking survivor, told DW.
Salam was lured from Bangladesh into Cambodia and forced to conduct "pig-butchering" scams for 5 months, in which he had to feed his victims with promises of romance and riches before cutting off and letting the scammers take all their money.
Many of his scamming victims were from outside Asia, including Germans, who he had to target on various social media platforms or dating apps like Tinder.
He used fake profiles to build various relationships ranging from love relationships or friendships, to gain the trust of the scam victim.
How to tell you have been scammed
"If you find out that the scammer is greedy, that should be a signal," Stacy, who asked not to reveal her real name for security reasons, told DW. She had built so much trust in a scammer that he motivated her to invest all her savings in crypto currency.
While she was one of the few who could get her money back, many scam victims lose all their assets.
"There are scam victims who seek psychiatric treatment because it is a complete loss of trust in human beings and the end of their financial lives," Stacy said, whose organization, the International Anti Scam & Trafficking Alliance, assists victims and exposes scam sites and methods.
"If someone introduces themselves to you online and is very willing to make a friendship with you and shows you their luxurious life — and after a few days, they show you that they are making money with cryptocurrencies and offer you to invest money in cryptocurrencies, that is when you should do a 180-degree turn and run away at full speed, because he or she is definitely a scammer," Salam said.
After several months of captivity, he was able to escape from the compound. Salam now tries to help authorities and civil society organizations in their efforts to rescue other victims who are still trapped in the compounds.
Victims' nationalities imply traffickers' nationalities
As the latest report by Humanity Research Consultancy indicates, an increasing number of slavery victims like Salam are being lured from Europe, Africa or the Americas.
According to Mina Chiang, it is almost impossible for local criminals in Cambodia and Myanmar to recruit victims without joining forces with the criminal networks in the victim source countries.
"Local criminals in the country are the low-hanging fruit in the criminal framework. They are not necessarily involved in the scamming, but they are part of the supply chain," Chiang said.
A few weeks ago, Taiwan convicted a group of traffickers who sent 88 victims to Cambodia's scamming compounds. The group was not involved in the scamming operations in Cambodia but had actively lured and sent Taiwanese victims to Cambodia.
"Countries that have found their citizens amongst the victims in scamming compounds should root out the domestic actors responsible for trafficking them there," Chiang added.
'People get trafficked because there are traffickers'
The scale of human trafficking and illicit scamming activity increasingly points to a global security issue.
As Tower notes, "pig butchering is not yet a household term," and more education would be needed to raise awareness about the severity of human trafficking and online scams.
He sees online recruitment pages as a growing problem, with illicit job offers posted on various websites that trick people into taking what appears to be a real job. It would be important for the industry to take down fraudulent advertizements and coordinate with law enforcement to crack down on these networks.
For Chiang and her team, the spotlight should be on the criminals rather than the potential victim. With much of their assets scattered around the world, she urges international authorities to sanction criminals by freezing their assets or labeling them as terrorists to warn banks.
"People get trafficked not because they are vulnerable, but because there are traffickers," Chiang said.
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru