Crime pays, but who pays the price?

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East Asia organized crime flows generate $90 billion annually, new report says

Van Trong Nguyen of Ho Chi Minh City was arrested in May at Tan Son Nhat International Airport after arriving on a flight from Laos with nearly three kilograms of methamphetamine (crystal ice) in his suitcase. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime says transnational organized crime in East Asia and the Pacific rakes in billions of dollars annually. Photo by CTV

Only a few weeks after Finnair launched its first direct flight between Helsinki and Hanoi in June this year, the first Vietnamese illegal immigrants arrived in the Scandinavian country.

It is believed they were brought over by organized gangs.

"In the past month, the Finnish Border Guard has apprehended over 20 illegal immigrants from Vietnam at Helsinki Airport. Organized crime is suspected in the cases," the Finnish newswire Yle reported on August 13.

Some of the Vietnamese arrived in Finland without any travel document, while others tried to get into the country by using a passport not belonging to themselves, it said.

According to the Finnish Border Guard, the illegal immigration is part of a larger, Europe-wide phenomenon. The authorities were prepared for something like this with the opening of the air route to Helsinki.

Several persons suspected of involvement in the illegal trafficking of immigrants to Finland have been apprehended, Yle quoted a Border Guard press release as saying.

According to a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report released in Hanoi on August 14, about 18,000 Vietnamese irregular migrants use smuggling services to reach the European Union every year, and the "business" generates up to US$300 million for the smugglers each year.

The report, titled Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: A Threat Assessment, says international labor migration is "a longstanding tradition for many East Asian populations," with the Chinese well in the lead.

The Vietnamese diaspora is also extensive, and flows from both these countries appear to have increased since the 1980s, it said.

The report covers four main crime markets: people (human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants), narcotic drugs (heroin and methamphetamine), environment (wildlife, wood-based products, e-waste and ozone-depleting substances), and goods (counterfeit goods and fraudulent medicines).

The contraband markets are valued at approximately $90 billion, which is eight times the Cambodian nominal gross national product. The goods are mostly produced in China and smuggled to the usual end target of Europe. Smuggling into Asia is also increasing drastically, the report says.

The report estimates that the top money-makers for crime groups in East Asia and the Pacific are: the illicit trade in counterfeit goods ($24.4 billion), illegal wood products ($17 billion), heroin ($16.3 billion), methamphetamines ($15 billion), fake meds ($5 billion) and illegal e-waste ($3.75 billion).

On August 14, the Vietnamese Ministry of Planning and Investment and the UNODC signed a cooperative agreement for the 2012-2017 period.

Deputy Minister Cao Viet Sinh said the cooperation would actively contribute to the national targets in fighting against drug and crime in Vietnam, including transnational crime, contraband smuggling, money laundering, terrorism and drug trafficking.

Do Kim Tuyen, deputy director of the Anti-Criminal Police Department, said drug crime in Vietnam ranks second after wildlife smuggling in terms of value. 

"The police have so far this year busted 16 cases of methamphetamine being smuggled on flights originating from African countries," he said, adding that the rings have employed local women, students and children.

"Apart from limited legal awareness, it is huge profits from drug that lure them to the trade," he said.

According to the UNODC report, the trade in counterfeit goods and medicines is often perceived as a "soft" form of crime, but can have dangerous consequences for public health and safety.

China has become the world's workshop, producing a significant share of the world's manufactured goods but it also produces a large share of the counterfeits, it said.

According to the World Customs Organization, 75 percent of the counterfeit products seized worldwide from 2008 to 2010 were manufactured in East Asia, primarily China.

Forensic testing has shown that the prevalence of fraudulent medicines is much higher in poor countries than in rich ones, with some of the highest rates being detected in Africa and Southeast Asia.

At present, the largest sources of fraudulent medicines appear to be India and China, with China being the departure point of nearly 60 percent of the counterfeit medical products seized worldwide between 2008 and 2010, the report says.

Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said that transnational criminal activities are a "global concern now."

"Illicit profits from crimes in East Asia and the Pacific can destabilize societies around the globe. Dollars from illicit activities in East Asia can buy property and companies and spread," Douglas said.

The UNODC says it is necessary to improve understandings of the problem, establish a normative framework, build technical capacity and expand regional partnerships to fight against the crimes.

"It is vital to integrate national responses into international strategies in order to effectively combat transnational organized crime in the region."

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