Transnational crime expanding aggressively in and beyond South-east Asia: UN Report

The threat of transnational organised crime is most vividly illustrated by the unprecedented growth in recent years of methamphetamine production and trafficking. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Of the total number of victims trafficked for sexual exploitation in South-east Asia between 2016 and 2018, almost 70 per cent were underage girls.

That, and a range of other transnational criminal activity such as drug and wildlife trafficking, is laid out in a new report on transnational organised crime in the region from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Exploiting gaps in enforcement and information sharing, and riding on corruption, transnational organised crime has expanded "aggressively" in the region and achieved global reach, said the 194-page report - the most comprehensive in five years.

"The fact is that while law enforcement and border management in the region are robust in some jurisdictions, they are effectively not functioning in others, and limited cross-border cooperation and corruption are serious problems," says the report, Transnational Organised Crime in South East Asia: Evolution, Growth and Impact.

"Criminal networks operating in South-east Asia have achieved global reach, trafficking unfathomable quantities of high-profit methamphetamine, massive consignments of wildlife and forest products, and an increasing range of counterfeit consumer and industrial goods.

"They also continue to engage in the smuggling of migrants and trafficking in persons for the purposes of sexual and labour exploitation," it says.

"While transnational organised crime syndicates use their financial muscle to further corrupt and undermine the rule of law, they are also destroying the lives of countless people in South-east Asia" the report concludes.

The region needs to develop a functional strategy to address transnational crime, it warns. National and regional data collection and reporting must be strengthened, and cross-border cooperation improved.

"A greater degree of cross-border intelligence collection and exchange between and among ASEAN member states is also necessary," it recommends. "It is important that countries take steps to increase collaborative intelligence gathering, law enforcement operations and criminal justice responses. This should also include initiatives to support regional networks of law enforcement officials and financial intelligence units."

The threat of transnational organised crime is most vividly illustrated by the unprecedented growth in recent years of methamphetamine production and trafficking. South-east Asia's illicit methamphetamine market, and that of East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Bangladesh are "inter-connected and now estimated to be worth between US$30.3 and US$61.4 billion annually," the report says.

It notes that Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea account for about one-third of the high-end estimated total value of the methamphetamine market as a result of disproportionately high wholesale and retail prices for methamphetamine.

Human trafficking for sexual exploitation accounted for roughly 79 per cent of the total number of cases in Thailand from 2014 through 2017, primarily involving female victims from the Mekong region, but also from some countries in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, and Sri Lanka, it says - adding that of the total number of victims trafficked for sexual exploitation, almost 70 per cent were underage girls.

"Most of the trafficking cases reported in Malaysia in recent years have also been related to sexual exploitation, accounting for roughly 60 to 73 per cent from 2016 through 2018, with the vast majority of victims being women and girls," the report says.

Wildlife and timber theft is rampant as well. "Multi-ton ivory seizures, sometimes along with smaller quantities of rhino horn, have been made in Vietnam and Hong Kong, China, but also in mainland China, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand," the report notes.

"The trafficking of African pangolins and their scales to markets in East and South-east Asia has also rapidly emerged as a major problem. The increase in the trafficking of African pangolins has followed the decimation of Asian pangolin populations."

In yet another avenue of transnational crime, the report cites data to arrive at the conclusion that the amount of money spent by consumers in South-east Asia on fake medicines, ranges between US$520 million and US$2.6 billion per year.

Intelligence reports indicate that major criminal syndicates and financiers based in Macau, Hong Kong, China, and Thailand, working with criminal networks and chemists from Taiwan, have become dominant players in the production and trafficking of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs.

"Organised criminal networks penetrate public agencies and private organisations, relying on bribery, conflicts of interest, trading in influence and collusion in order to facilitate their criminal activities," the report warns. Trafficking of precursor chemicals used to make methamphetamines; illegal wildlife and timber; and counterfeit goods, relies on bribery and document fraud to falsify the content and origins of illicit cargo, and documents are often forged or approved by corrupt customs and border officials, it says.

And vast sums of money find a ready laundry in an expanding number of casinos in the region - especially in Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the region, which as of January 2019 had 150 licensed casinos, compared with 57 in 2014.

Also as of January 2019, there were 67 licensed casinos in the Philippines, and five in Laos and Myanmar, the report says.

"Many of these casinos emerged after a crackdown on money laundering activities in Macau, China, in 2014, raising concerns that a 'displacement' of criminal activities associated with casinos has taken place to South-east Asia, especially to jurisdictions in the Mekong region that lack regulatory oversight and enforcement capacity," it adds.

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