A new report from an agency of the United Nations (U.N.) has voiced concerns about the role of special economic zones (SEZs) and casinos in Southeast Asia in “enabling organised crime groups to traffic various illicit goods and launder money”. It stated that “the proliferation of casinos in SEZs is of significant concern” in terms of crime prevention.
The document added: “These risks are of particular concern in the Mekong countries, which have a long and well-documented history of organised crime and illicit economic activity, in part due to broader geopolitical circumstances, but also as a result of the social and political environment within the region.”
It also raised concerns regarding the involvement of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) in illicit activities, including trafficking in persons.
The policy report, titled “Casinos, cyber fraud, and trafficking in persons for forced criminality in Southeast Asia”, was issued earlier this month by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
“Organised crime groups are converging in the region where they see vulnerabilities,” said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative to Southeast Asia and the Pacific, quoted in a news release.
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.”
The policy report was released in tandem with the announcement that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) together with China, as a partner country, had agreed on a plan of action to tackle regional criminal activity associated with gambling. The “Regional Cooperation Roadmap to Address Transnational Organized Crime and Trafficking in Persons Associated with Casinos and Scam Operations in Southeast Asia” was disclosed on Tuesday in Bangkok, Thailand, and is supported by the UNODC.
The UNODC’s latest report estimated that, by the end of 2021, there were more than 340 licensed and non-licensed casinos located in Southeast Asia, in particular in the Mekong region. It also pointed to a surge in recent years in online casinos in the region, triggered by travel restrictions associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.
The document noted that the latest Financial Action Task Force (FATF) mutual evaluation reports conducted for Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam had demonstrated that “the regulatory and enforcement mechanisms in place in relation to casinos and SEZs are not robust enough to address the heightened risks associated with money laundering in the casino industry.”
The report added that “evidence also suggests that a number of casinos, particularly in the Myawaddy area of Myanmar, close to the border with Thailand, also do not appear to have official licences to operate,” being run by “non-state armed groups that control important border areas” in the country.
The report featured data on China’s effort to tackle illegal cross-border gambling, quoting data from the Chinese authorities. It said that in 2020, the authorities in China had “arrested over 75,000 suspects involved in illegal cross-border gambling, with at least 600 extradited to China with the support of local authorities in Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam.”
The document stated that in 2022, Chinese police investigated more than 37,000 cases involving cross-border gambling. “Since the beginning of 2022, police operations nationwide busted over 2,600 online gambling platforms, more than 1,100 casinos, as well as in excess of 2,500 illegal payment platforms and underground banks,” it added.
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