By Cod Satrusayang
BANGKOK (DPA) — Thai officials are bracing themselves for a possible downgrade when the US State Department releases its annual human Trafficking in Persons report (TIP) this week.
For the past year the country has been on the watch list of Tier 2, and a downgrade to Tier 3 would see it join the likes of Syria, Cuba and Iran in the lowest category.
"We definitely come very close to Tier 3 and serious discussion must have taken place [on where] to rate Thailand" in the upcoming report, said Fuadi Pitsuwan, a fellow at Harvard University's Asia Center, and a Thai native.
"In comparison to its neighbours, the trafficking situation is not as bad," he said. "But the US expects more from Thailand as its oldest ally in Asia and as once a bastion of democracy in Asia."
Thai officials have insisted that the country has more than met the minimum requirements to maintain Tier 2 status.
"Thailand's demonstrated awareness, cooperation and progress in combating human trafficking in 2013 clearly exceeds the US State Department's criteria for an upgrade on the 2014 TIP Report," said Thailand's Ambassador to the United States Vijvat Isarabhakdi.The Foreign Ministry insists that the government has been working with various NGOs and rights groups to combat human trafficking, calling it "one of the worst forms of human indignity."
In a separate meeting with the US ambassador, Thailand's acting foreign minister stressed that the country places "great importance on combatting and eradicating human trafficking."
He said this year's rise in reported trafficking cases demonstrated authorities' determination to tackle the issue.
The TIP report will come just over a week after Thailand was the only country to briefly vote against a motion that would enforce the International Labour Organization's convention against slave labour.
The Foreign Ministry defended its decision by saying that before supporting the adoption of "any specific instrument, Thailand has to seriously consider her own readiness to implement such an instrument, in conformity with relevant Thai laws."
The reaction from NGOs and rights groups was harsh, with the executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation calling the decision an "absolute disgrace and one that brings further shame onto an already embattled government."
"It also fuels the suspicion that much of Thailand's public statements regarding its commitment to tackling forced labour amount to little more than a PR exercise."
Thailand subsequently rescinded its abstention and voted in favour of the protocol.
The country was also in the crosshairs of a report in Britain's Guardian newspaper last week that said Thailand's shrimp farmers were buying feed made from fish caught using forced labour.
The Guardian report said "large numbers of men [are] bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand."
Many were illegal migrants from neighbouring countries hoping for jobs in plantations or factories, but who stumbled into the clutches of brokers who sold them to the boat operators, it said.
Human Rights Watch wrote to US Secretary of State John Kerry recommending that Thailand be downgraded to Tier 3.
"The Government of Thailand does not meet the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, nor is it taking real steps to meet those standards," the group said in an open letter.
HRW cited irregularities within the seafood industry in Thailand as well as the detention and reported trafficking of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar by Thai security forces as a basis for its recommendation.
If Thailand is downgraded to the lowest tier it may face economic sanctions and the withdrawal of aid funds.
Multinational companies will also be encouraged to stop trading in industries where forced labour may play a role.