Trafficking in tiers and fears
The government sighed with relief when the country’s anti-trafficking performance moved up from the Tier 2 Watchlist to Tier 2 in the US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, released on July 19.
As its corruption fight has lagged, however, the country is still far from eliminating this heinous crime.
Had Thailand’s status dropped to Tier 3, it would have enhanced the country’s reputation as one of the world’s worst offenders in human trafficking.
That happened in 2014 and 2015 when Thailand made international headlines for its brutality against the Rohingya boat people and the discovery of their mass graves in southern Thailand.
The US issues the TIP Report annually to assess how well countries go after traffickers, protect survivors and prevent future crimes.
The latest TIP Report cites Thailand’s “overall increasing efforts compared with the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity”.
In addition to an increase in investigations, the report recognises the setting up of a new trafficking victim identification centre as well as efforts to create a national referral mechanism.
It also acknowledges new guidelines for labour officials to better protect survivors; an improved system for identifying human trafficking victims; and the initiation of lawsuits against corrupt officials, two of whom were convicted and given jail terms.
However, the report also made clear that Thailand has backslid or failed outright in some regards.
For example, the number of trafficking prosecutions and convictions fell compared to the previous year.
In addition, ineffective interview practices due to officials’ lack of understanding of forced labour and labour trafficking indicators left many victims unidentified. As a result some victims, including those on Thai fishing vessels which are notorious for slave labour, have gone unidentified and their plight unreported.
Many survivors, moreover, are still not receiving proper care. Those in government shelters also lack freedom of movement. Notably, “corruption and official complicity continued to impede anti-trafficking efforts”, says the report.
All the same, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was delighted with the TIP upgrade. He vowed to protect human dignity and eliminate all forms of human trafficking in Thailand as a national agenda item.
Any chance of success must start with heeding the TIP Report’s recommendations, among them: 1) prosecute and convict the traffickers and accomplices more seriously, particularly corrupt officials, 2) equip officials with knowledge about forced labour and the skills to identify trafficking victims, and 3) allow freedom of movement, access to communication and job opportunities for trafficking victims in shelters.
Furthermore, don’t hold victims for longer than necessary in prison-like shelters, or they may turn to the traffickers themselves to get out.
Likewise ensure that all interviews, legal assistance and other procedures are sensitive to the victims’ history of trauma.
Despite the status upgrade, the human trafficking situation in Thailand remains challenging.
In June this year, traffickers abandoned more than 50 Rohingya including women and young children on Ko Dong Island off Satun province. Tellingly, these Rohingya were not illegal immigrants: they were victims of human trafficking.
Indeed hopes of genuine improvement may be wishful thinking, judging by what happened to the maverick police officer Maj Gen Paween Pongsirin, the former chief investigator of the Rohingya massacre.
He came to fear for his life when his investigations threatened to expose the human trafficking networks’ connections with top brass.
As a result, he had to flee the country for safety. Now in exile in Australia, Mr Paween has revealed several names linked to the trafficking of Rohingya people. However, the government brushed aside Mr Paween’s accounts of state-sponsored harassment. Instead, it ridiculed his exposé and in effect belittled his dedication to prosecuting the traffickers and corrupt officials.
This failure to convict traffickers in the 2015 Rohingya mass-grave case may yet affect Thailand’s TIP status next year. Child labour and its part in human trafficking also remain a problem. Current labour protection law sets the minimum age for work at 15. This must be raised to 18.
The prime minister’s vow to end human trafficking in Thailand is a noble cause.
However, without serious efforts to punish traffickers and corrupt officials, and improve victim protection — while also putting in place measures to prevent future crimes — the world will continue to see Thailand’s fight against human trafficking as mere hypocrisy.