In a raid by Philippine police last week, thousands of suspected human trafficking victims were rescued from a fraud offshore gaming operator.
While most of the victims were Filipino nationals, many were lured from abroad, including China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. According to a report
by The Straits Times, these foreign nationals were recruited through a Facebook post and had been given free food and accommodations, along with monetary compensation, in exchange for 12-hour shifts.
Despite the gambling front, local authorities suspect that these gaming operators are only being used as a cover for illegal schemes, such as cryptocurrency or romance scams. The raid was conducted in a compound owned by the Chinese firm Xinchuang Network Technology. Officials have not yet determined who the perpetrators are – or what they plan to do with the rescued foreigners.
Human trafficking has long been a persistent problem in the country, especially as regards Philippine offshore gaming operators, colloquially referred to as POGOs. Driven away by strict online gambling restrictions
in China, these online casinos have set up hubs in the Philippines but cater primarily to overseas clients.
The POGO industry flourished under the term of former President Rodrigo Duterte, who defended
the gambling firms and even touted its economic benefits.
Citing data from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR), the main gaming regulatory body in the country, Esquire Philippines reported
that in 2016, when Duterte rose to power, these offshore casinos generated Php 657 million (US$11.88 million) for the regulating body. This revenue jumped to Php 3.924 billion (US$71 million) in 2017 and Php 7.365 billion (US$1.3 billion) in 2018.
Toward the end of his term, however, driven by the government’s poor pandemic response, many POGOs fled the Philippines
and settled in neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
As a result, human trafficking spiked in the region. Citing these countries, Interpol warned of an impending crisis, with victims being taken to as far as “South America, East Africa and Western Europe,” according to a report
by Asia Gaming Brief. The U.S. State Department has even singled out
Cambodia as a high-risk country for businesses seeking to invest money, with high rates of casino- and gambling-related laundering, corruption and trafficking.
Tackling such a sprawling and complex problem requires cross-border and multidimensional approaches, said Mely Caballero-Anthony, head, Center for Non-Traditional Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, in an article
for the International Monetary fund.
“A comprehensive, more human-centered approach compels us to delve deeper into the other drivers of human trafficking, including poverty, severe exploitation, and political repression,” Caballero-Anthony wrote.