Southeast Asia is witnessing an explosion of organised crime thanks to increasing economic integration, according to a new United Nations report.

The illegal trafficking of people, drugs, counterfeit goods and wildlife is already estimated to exceed US$100 billion a year – more than the GDP of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia combined. Yet as the borders become increasingly porous, the black market trade is undergoing a corresponding expansion, with “Golden Triangle” drug trafficking on the rise as criminal networks take advantage of lax security.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime report, “Protecting peace and prosperity”, calls on ASEAN countries to upgrade coordinated security measures.

The report follows the launch last December of ASEAN’s economic bloc, the ASEAN Economic Community, which aims promote the flow of trade, skilled workers and investment.

“Currently, the ASEAN institutional agenda for countering transnational crime is not moving at the same speed as the trade and migration side of the integration agenda,” the report said.

The ASEAN “Master Plan on Connectivity” skims over criminal repercussions of integration, and according to the UNODC “its focus is towards facilitation and does not seem to encourage deeper efforts towards integrated security capabilities”.

In the absence of such an agenda, traffickers are moving in and prospering, with Myanmar often their focus. The criminal networks “take advantage of porous borders and growing trade flows with Myanmar in particular to make sizeable shipments by maritime transport, with few interdictions”, the report said.

An examination of maritime trade flows revealed that while $5.3 trillion worth of trade makes it through Southeast Asian waters, less than 2 percent of the 500 million shipping containers are checked annually.

For Myanmar, such limited oversight helps fuel human smuggling and drug trafficking. Heroin found in the region is almost entirely sourced from Myanmar, which is the second-largest producer globally. According to the UN, Myanmar and Laos combined produced 762 tonnes of opium in 2014.

Myanmar is also a major source of methamphetamines, with production predicated on the influx of precursors prepared in India and China.

“If the development of infrastructure and trade facilitation mechanisms is not accompanied by stronger security cooperation, it is almost certain that organised criminal networks that straddle the India-Myanmar border will enjoy bigger revenues and more power,” the report said.

Jeremy Douglas, UNODC representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said ASEAN nations need to treat the warning signs more seriously and step up security measures.

“Current public security and safety institutions, systems and safeguards in the region are reflective of a time when crime was local in nature, prior to when governments had to work on shared security challenges,” he said.

While the UNODC report suggested ASEAN improve information sharing and data collection methods, it did not address the issue of poverty, which the agency has previously suggested underpin the drug and human trafficking trades. At the Opium Farmers Forum last year, cultivators said they rely on the poppies to feed their families. By Laignee Barron, 26 Feb 2016