Organised crime groups dealing in fake goods, drugs, human trafficking and illicit wildlife trade earn nearly US$90 billion annually in East Asia and the Pacific, a UN report showed yesterday.
"Transnational Organised Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: A Threat Assessment" is the most comprehensive study of the subject, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said.
It estimates that the top money-makers for crime groups are the trade in counterfeit goods (US$24.4 billion), illegal wood products (US$17 billion), heroin (US$16.3 billion) and methamphetamines (US$15 billion).
Fake medicines (US$5 billion), black market trade in used electronics components to avoid legitimate recycling (US$3.75 billion) and illegal wildlife (US$2.5 billion) also rank highly.
Migrant smuggling and the trafficking of women and girls for prostitution or general labour also earn crime bosses hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
UNODC deputy executive director Sandeep Chawla said the report opened the window on "the mechanics of illicit trade: the how, where, when, who and why of selected contraband markets affecting this region".
"It looks at how criminal enterprises have developed alongside legitimate commerce and taken advantage of distribution and logistics chains," he said in Sydney, Australia.
Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said many of the organised criminal activities could have serious global health implications.
"Between one-third to 90 per cent of anti-malarial drugs tested in Southeast Asia are fraudulent," he said. "They do not contain what they say they do. Substandard drugs have two serious public health consequences. One, people get sicker or die. Two, drug-resistant strains can develop and cause a global threat."
He said the threat from organised crime is now so great that it has the ability to "destabilise societies around the globe".
"Illicit profits from crimes in East Asia and the Pacific can buy property and companies and corrupt anywhere," he said.
"We need to talk about this, and organise a co-ordinated response now. It takes a network to defeat a network."
The trade in counterfeit goods is the most lucrative activity, despite being considered a "soft" form of crime, with China the worst culprit.
According to the World Customs Organisation, 75 per cent of all fake products seized worldwide from 2008 to 2010 were from East Asia, primarily China.