Trafficking shame is quick to resurface

No sooner had Thai authorities proved some progress had been made in their efforts to tackle human trafficking than new, shameful cases emerged.

Children of Rohingya migrants play at a temporary shelter in Hua Sai district of Nakhon Si Thammarat province after nearly 100 Rohingya were found smuggled in pickup trucks earlier this month. Three died during transportation. Nucharee Rakrun  

These include the deaths of Rohingya from suffocation and illness caused by the cramped conditions of the vehicles they were being smuggled in, and the rescue of 72 Lao teenagers from a brothel posing as a karaoke bar.

As for the fisheries industry, even though the government has decided to scrap a plan to have inmates crew fishing vessels to answer labour shortages − activists said it would raise human rights concerns − abuse on boats is still rife.

The human trafficking situation is under the spotlight again as US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Daniel Russel, is visiting Bangkok today. Thai officials are eager to convince him − the most senior US official to visit Thailand since the coup last year − that the country has kick-started several initiatives to combat this modern-day slavery.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha recently appointed five subcommittees to tackle trafficking of women and migrant workers, to end child and forced labour and suppress illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

But activists have cautioned that promises are not enough to do away with human rights abuses. Instead, they have called for better mechanisms to bring the owners of fishing boats using trafficked workers to justice.

They also urged government agencies to pay more attention to new at-risk groups − such as Thai men aged between 40 and 50, and minors − who are drugged and then enslaved on the boats.

They made the point last Wednesday as the government concluded its submission for the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, to be released later this year by the US State Department.

Thailand was downgraded to Tier 3 − the lowest rank − last year in the report which is an important instrument used by the US to assess the state of anti-trafficking responses in other countries.

Supang Chantavanich, professor of sociology and director of Chulalongkorn University's Asian Research Centre on Migration, suggested the formation of an inter-agency body comprising officials from the Justice Ministry, Office of the Attorney-General (OAG), the National Police Office, and Social Development and Human Security Ministry as well as the Department of Special Investigation to speed up the criminal justice process, which was cited as a bottleneck in last year's TIP report.

The recommendation was part of the three-page proposal made by 10 civil society organisations for good governance in human trafficking suppression and victim protection.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said the enforced fishing labour situation had yet to improve because beatings, killings, 18-20 hour-long work days, poor sanitation, and other unbearable working conditions continue.

Although there has been some legislative improvement, such as the amended ministerial regulations of the Labour Protection Act last September, which enforces the need to observe minimum resting hours, inspection of crew lists and regular payments, Mr Robertson said the agencies involved in policing the measures remained understaffed with too few resources.

"When trafficking cases go to court, they should be accelerated and made more efficient so victims can be protected. This will encourage them to serve as witnesses in trials," he said.

Patima Tangpratyakun of the Seafarers Action Centre, said her organisation and the Labour Rights Promotion Network Foundation have documented 128 fishing crew members hiding on the Indonesian island of Ambon after escaping traffickers. They've rescued 27 Thais and 19 Myanmar so far, but the rest are stuck there.

"Nine Thai and 30 Myanmar have died this month and another two Myanmar crew members were disabled. We were told there are as many as 500 members of fishing crews who need rescuing from this deadly job," Ms Patima said.

Corruption is a key issue, she said. "Why do authorities issue seaman books identifying Myanmar and Cambodians as Thai crew? Why do they let young people on board?" Unfair contracts and unpaid wages are another problem, she said.

Wanchai Benjaphat, 45, one of the survivors of the Indonesian abuse saga, said broker fees in the past decade have increased from 3,000 baht per head to 30,000 baht, but the jobs have turned out to be potentially harmful, such as work in freezers at dangerously low temperatures, or ones with no rest or little to no payment.

"When brokers cannot find strong, able men to do these jobs, they lure or drug older men and youngsters and make them slaves on the boats," said Mr Wanchai, who has been living on the shore for the past 10 months.

Stories of trawler operators forcing labourers to work at gunpoint are still rampant. Some jump from the boat and die or are injured, he said.

Mr Wanchai wants to know why we never pursue the operators of trawlers.

"Why do authorities never criminalise boat owners?" he asked. "They deceive people, take them away and don't allow them to return to shore, so they don't have to pay the wages they promised.

''They are merciless. Not just the captains of the trawlers, but the owners too."


Achara Ashayagachat is senior news reporter, Bangkok Post.

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Writer: Achara Ashayagachat
Position: Senior reporter on socio-political issues