The United States government's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which maintains Thailand at the lowest level of Tier 3, should be understood for what it is — a diplomatic tool to pressure governments to address the various crimes associated with human trafficking.
There is a natural tendency to react negatively to the ethnocentrism which sets the US up as judge and jury. But let us not overlook the essential message: that crimes against humanity such as child prostitution, illegal detention and debt bondage are being committed with impunity in Thailand.
We can question the methodology and some of the conclusions of the latest TIP report, but the essential meaning is valid: greater effort is required in Thailand to identify and prosecute traffickers and protect their victims. No official involved in this trade should be spared, and efforts by power-brokers to stall prosecutions must be resisted.
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Thailand's reputation in the international community is at stake: does Thailand want to be seen as a country where human rights are seen as an inconvenience or as a modern, enlightened and respectable cosmopolitan country?
The report clearly outlines its recommendations in a multi-dimensional framework, emphasising how more must be done in Thailand to investigate, prosecute and punish perpetrators, including public officials; protect victims, and prevent human trafficking.
Nonetheless, academic experts have argued that both the TIP report and governments need to focus more on the quality of the national crime response; not the quantity of prosecutions, but the degree, outcomes and whether prosecutions are successful. This is why Thailand's prosecution of 72 recently indicted suspects including military and police, and warrants for 45 more, while already lauded by the US embassy, will continue to be closely monitored.
This is also why quantitative comparisons with other countries such as Malaysia make little sense — the relative nature of the problem is being more comprehensively addressed in Malaysia, which was upgraded in the report.
Crucially, the report criticises the care of trafficked people and states the need for improvements to immigration detention centres (IDCs), especially as regards to children. These IDCs were rightly condemned in the 2014 Thailand Human Rights Report, issued by the US, for arbitrarily detaining "thousands of undocumented migrant, asylum seeker and refugee children - including infants and toddlers - in squalid immigration facilities and police lock-ups, some for weeks, months or years".
A defining characteristic of human trafficking is that affected migrants are not willing partners - this distinguishes them from the vast majority of migrants who willingly choose to relocate for economic, family, environmental or other reasons. Even migrants who seek and pay agents or other middlemen to help them escape unbearable conditions, such as the Rohingya, are not being trafficked unless and until they cease to be willing partners.
Human trafficking, whether within a country or across borders, therefore involves the recruitment, transportation, harbouring or transfer of a person by force or threat of force, deception, fraud or abuse of power.
This means by definition that trafficked people are victims and deserve protection in accordance with both domestic and international law. Relevant laws relating to kidnapping, illegal detention and the sale of persons are already in place in Thailand. The US TIP report therefore is largely concerned with the effective implementation of the relevant laws and conventions.
In Thailand, young people from the Northeast and the North — where job opportunities are limited — have travelled for decades to Bangkok and other provinces where work is more readily available. Many have experienced exploitation by employers, and this exploitation has transformed into trafficking as false promises and threats have compromised the safety and basic human rights of those seeking a better life.
Their situation, then, is often similar to that of the many undocumented migrants who enter Thailand from neighbouring countries.
All too often they do not receive the protection they are entitled to because government officials and police attach little importance to their plight.
Thailand has sought to regularise the status of migrant workers through the signing agreements with Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar. But these mechanisms for registering foreign migrants and allowing the new migrant workers to enter have done little to protect migrants from abuse.
Trafficking is the dark side of human migration, and no matter what the US TIP Report's methodological failings, the fact remains that too many people in Tier 3 countries find themselves vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers who can all too often operate with impunity.
Until all people are treated with the same respect by authorities and enjoy the same rights before the law, unscrupulous traffickers will continue to wreak havoc on the lives of their victims. There needs to be a critical and open debate on Thailand's problems.
International NGOs in the field such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Anti-Slavery International represent important sources of information on the nature and scale of the trafficking problem and have suggested useful pathways towards solutions.
Regional solutions require more cordial professional working relationships with NGOs and investigative journalists. Initially, we may uncover more unpleasant truths but with joint responsibility and a focus on solutions development we will soon generate positive results.
Cooperative partnerships will also aid Thailand's efforts to follow the report's key recommendations to address the systemic corruption by officials, including abuse of defamation suits, and improve the quality of care for the victims by not arresting and deporting them, so moving Thailand up the report's tiers.
Yan Flint is a former New Zealand ambassador to Vietnam and former director of the Mekong Institute. He is currently a senior lecturer and researcher at Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, PhD, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.