Trafficking Activists Cautiously Welcome TIP Upgrade

A boat loaded with nearly 400 Myanmar Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees was pushed away repeatedly from Thailand in May 2015 before being rescued by fisherman in Sumatra, Indonesia. File photo: EPA/STR
A boat loaded with nearly 400 Myanmar Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees was pushed away repeatedly from Thailand in May 2015 before being rescued by fisherman in Sumatra, Indonesia. File photo: EPA/STR

BANGKOK — Anti-trafficking activists gave a guarded welcome Friday to the US decision to remove Thailand from its human trafficking watch list.

The annual Trafficking in Persons report by the US State Department, which several years ago downgraded Thailand to its lowest level, praised the military government for making significant efforts to tackle the problem.

“The Government of Thailand does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” the report stated. “The government demonstrated increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore Thailand has been upgraded to Tier 2.”

The report specifically cited efforts to prosecute more traffickers and decrease prosecution time of such cases through the use of specialized anti-trafficking law enforcement. The government was also credited for investigating more cases involving officials implicated in trafficking. It said that 12 complicit officials were convicted in 2017, including 11 involved in the trafficking of Rohingya migrants.

Thailand has faced global scrutiny for the use of slave labor in its fishing fleet, and those campaigning against it said some while praise is deserved, it may have been premature to remove it from the watch list.

“If you asked me whether I am okay with the latest [Trafficking in Persons] report or not, I observe that perhaps Thailand doesn’t belong there yet. The law was just amended, and there’s no guarantee about its efficacy,” said Papop Siamhan, coordinator of the Human Rights and Development Foundation.

Papop was referring to last year’s amendment of the Human Trafficking Act by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly, which he praised as an improvement. He said the definition of human trafficking has become more encompassing, but cautioned that the amendments have yet to come into the force of law.

Matthew Smith, the Bangkok-based CEO of an international rights group working on trafficking issues, gave a cautious welcome to the news.

“We recognize that the Thai authorities have done quite a lot over the years,” said Smith of Fortify Rights.

Four years ago, Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level in the report for rampant abuses. Months later, border slave camps where trafficked migrants, many Myanmar Rohingya, were found buried in mass graves. Another blow came via international exposes of widespread slavery in Thailand’s fishing fleet.

Remaining at the Tier 3 level means facing penalties through sanctions, including the withholding of non-humanitarian aid and assistance that could affect agreements with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

The military government vowed to improve regulations, oversight and prosecution. In 2016, Thailand was upgraded out of Tier 3 and placed on the watch list.

For its part, the government praised the report’s findings.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said he was grateful for the improved assessment as it “reflects the determination and sincere intentions of the Thai government and our continued hard work to tackle the issue of human trafficking.”

Regionally, it was a mixed report, concluding that gains were matched by problems, especially weak enforcement of protections against trafficking and slave and child labor.

Malaysia fell to the watchlist from Tier 2. Hong Kong, China and Singapore came in for criticism over insufficient efforts to stop sex trafficking and forced labor.

Activist Papob said did give credit to the authorities for becoming more savvy on the issue.

“[Thailand’s] policy toward assisting victims of human trafficking has also become more adept at understanding the context of the victims,” Papob said.

Still, he doubts whether Thailand qualifies for Tier 2 because it’s still too soon to conclude that the amended Human Trafficking Act will be effective.

Since the law was first passed 10 years ago, he said the kingdom has had more than 1,000 cases involving trafficking victims seeking monetary compensation. Only one succeeded. The burden to identify violators’ assets falls to the victim.

Fortify’s Smith added however that Thailand still continues its policy of pushing back Rohingya refugee boats which put these vulnerable people at risk.

“The people who arrived on the shores are at a very high risk of human trafficking,” Smith said.

Smith also questioned why the report, produced by the US State Department, congratulated the Thai military government for repatriating 36 Rohingya people. “We hope this is a typo. I don’t know why the US State Department would be congratulating Thailand.”

Additional reporting Associated Press