The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released a report on Thursday detailing new patterns of organised crime in Southeast Asia.
The Transnational Organized Crime in Southeast Asia: Evolution, Growth and Impact 2019 report released by UNODC on Thursday said synthetic drugs have become the most profitable illicit business in the region as organised crime groups developed their business models and expanded methamphetamine markets.
The report said human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants had also increased due to demand and the supply of cheap labour in the region.
Southeast Asia was also a hub for counterfeit goods and medicines.
The study found that recent crackdowns in some parts of Southeast Asia and neighbouring regions have changed trafficking patterns, while large criminal groups have at the same time scaled-up and moved operations to locations with weak governance, particularly in border areas.
It looked at active transnational organised crime, including the trafficking of drugs, particularly methamphetamine and heroin, and the precursors used in their manufacture, human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants.
It also studied environmental crime, such as wildlife and timber trafficking, as well as the counterfeit goods and falsified medicines trade.
“Organised crime groups are generating tens of billions of dollars in Southeast Asia from the cross-border trafficking and smuggling of illegal drugs and precursors, people, wildlife, timber and counterfeit goods,” UNODC Regional Representative Jeremy Douglas said.
He said dirty money was increasingly moving through the region’s casino industry and other large cash flow businesses.
The report said around half a million migrants, mainly from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, were estimated to be smuggled into Thailand each year, generating annual illicit revenues of between $132 million and $196 million.
“Weak governance of forest resources, unclear forest tenure and corruption in timber supply chains, and the region’s proximity to consumer markets and timber processing industries in China continue to make Southeast Asia’s timber species high-value targets for the criminal networks,” it said.
The report found that Vietnam was a major timber exporter as well as a key wooden furniture manufacturing country. The nation had strong links with legal and illegal timber markets in neighbouring Cambodia, China and Laos.
It said in May 2016, a timber ban in Laos had forced timber traffickers to seek supplies and exports from Cambodia.
The report also looked at human trafficking and money laundering affecting Cambodia.
“Extensive casino complexes in Cambodia’s border areas and Phnom Penh have been identified as locations for bulk cash smuggling and the laundering of organised crime revenues,” the report said.
The report said that by January this year, there were 230 licensed casinos in Southeast Asia, including 150 in Cambodia, 67 in the Philippines and five each in Laos and Myanmar.
From 2015 to 2017, Cambodian authorities discovered 415 victims of human trafficking being smuggled into Thailand.
In the same period, Thai authorities found 87 Cambodians trafficked into the Kingdom’s western neighbour, it said.
UNODC recommended that countries in the region develop comprehensive and functional strategies to address transnational crimes, strengthen national and regional data collection capacity and reporting, minimise disparities in capacity gaps and improve cross-border cooperation.