The Philippines intends to shut down 175 online gambling firms and deport about 40,000 Chinese nationals who are working for them, as pressure builds on the government to crack down on the shadowy online gaming sector.
An official from the Ministry of Justice announced the plan on Monday, citing the ecosystem of criminal activities that has grown around the industry over the past six years. “The crackdown was triggered by reports of murder, kidnapping and other crimes committed by Chinese nationals against fellow Chinese nationals,” ministry spokesperson Dominic Clavano said, according to a report by Reuters.
Philippine offshore gambling operators, known colloquially as POGOs, first started appearing in the Philippines in 2016. Staffed mostly by expatriate Chinese nationals, POGO operations mostly targeted customers in China. The industry’s growth coincided with the coming to office of President Rodrigo Duterte, who loosened regulations on the arrival of Chinese nationals, and initiated a foreign policy pivot toward Beijing.
But it also reflected the regional growth of the industry, which good evidence suggests is enmeshed with the Chinese organized crime networks that have long been active across the region. The years after 2016 also saw the rapid growth of Chinese-backed gambling operations in other parts of Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia and Laos, and in rebel-controlled regions of eastern Myanmar.
When COVID-19 hit, many of these operations, particularly in Cambodia, pivoted to online scam operations that have been associated with human trafficking on an industrial scale. These operations have lured hundreds – possible thousands – of people from across Asia with offers of good-paying work, only to enclose them in fortified compounds and force them, on pain of beatings and other forms of torture, to conduct phone and text message scams in their own languages.