Written by John Quinley III.
Last month, CNN uncovered shocking footage from a slave auction in Libya showing African refugees and migrants being sold like cattle, sparking global outrage.
Each year, tens of thousands of people cross Libya’s borders as refugees or economic migrants in search of protection and better opportunities, trying to get to Europe. Instead of realising their dreams and reaching their destinations, many become victims of human trafficking—a modern-day slave trade.
This trade goes well beyond Libya. Take Thailand, for example. Thailand continues to be a source, transit, and destination country for trafficking in persons. Under domestic and international law, Thailand has a duty to protect the rights of trafficking survivors and hold perpetrators to account in its jurisdiction—yet still the crime persists.
Thailand’s Anti-Trafficking Act has been cited as one of the most well drafted in light of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol), in Southeast Asia.
The reason for the perpetuation of the trade despite Thailand’s strong anti-trafficking legislation lies in the need to translate normative desire into substantive practices. How can this be done in Thailand?
There are tangible steps Thailand can take to end human trafficking: 1) implement existing legislation, including the Anti-Trafficking Act and Cabinet Resolutions that promise protection for survivors and witnesses of trafficking; 2) prosecute perpetrators, regardless of position or rank, including government officials; 3) strengthen screening mechanisms to identify survivors of trafficking; 4) amend the 1979 Immigration Act to differentiate between refugees and other foreigners.
Enforce Thailand’s Anti-Trafficking Act
Thailand has comprehensive anti-trafficking laws and policies—some of the best in Southeast Asia. The main piece of legislation in Thailand relating to human trafficking is the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act, B.E. 2551 (2008), informally referred to as the Anti-Trafficking Act. Amended in March 2015 and January 2017, the Anti-Trafficking Act outlines and criminalises conduct that is considered to be human trafficking in Thailand.
Thailand’s Anti-Trafficking Act has been cited as one of the most well drafted in light of the UN Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children in Southeast Asia.
The newest Anti-Trafficking Act includes more severe penalties for trafficking, and mirrors the Palermo Protocol’s terminology. This includes a revised definition of “exploitation” to include “practices similar to slavery” and an expanded definition of “forced labour or services,” which now includes seizure of identification documents and debt bondage.
If the amendments are implemented, this could lead to harsher punishments for traffickers, including businesses. In 2015, a report by Associated Press exposed hundreds of small shrimp peeling factories in Thailand’s underground economy, where employers forced men, women, and children to work for little or no pay. Several international companies have since been implicated in labour abuses and slavery in their supply chains. In many cases, employers withheld wages for months and even passports, ensuring “workers” would not leave. In a recent case, a company sued migrant workers for defamation for speaking out against labour abuses, including restrictions on their freedom of movement, paying less than minimum wage, and confiscating their passports.
In Thailand, cases involving the low wages and confiscation of documents are often tried as violations of Thailand’s Labour Protection Act. However, these abuses also violate the Anti-Trafficking Act Section 6/2, which states that forced labour can take the form of “intimidation” and “withholding important personal documents of the person.” Litigation using the Anti-Trafficking Act, as opposed to solely using the Labour Protection Act, or both, would lead to harsher punishments for individuals and companies who take advantage of migrant workers and refugees, many of whom lack legal status.
The amendments to the Anti-Trafficking Act also put in place stronger mechanisms for whistle-blowers, including protecting authorities who report on trafficking crimes.
Thailand made welcomed strides in 2016 when it passed Cabinet Resolution no. 11/B.E.2559. If implemented properly, the Cabinet Resolution under the Ministry of Justice would provide formal witness protection and preserve legal status as well as issue work permits for survivors of human trafficking, allowing them to stay freely in Thailand for up to one year. However, there are still threats for witnesses. For example, in 2016, six assailants, who identified themselves as police officers, abducted and threatened a witness in the Bangkok trafficking trial connected to mass human trafficking camps in Southern Thailand.
Prosecute perpetrators and end corruption
A contributing factor to the persistence of trafficking in Thailand is official corruption, which both obstructs efforts to bring perpetrators to justice and even facilitates trafficking. Sungsidh Piriyarangsan and Pasuk Phongpaichit posit in their seminal work, Corruption and Democracy in Thailand,that patron-client relationships in Thailand are central, creating an enabling environment for corruption to exist, particularly on the local level. For example, in May 2017 Thai authorities accused a provincial governor and local police of trafficking ethnic children in Northern Thailand. The province of Mae Hong Son is home to several indigenous ethnic groups, many of whom lack formal legal status. The children were allegedly offered as a “gift” to high-ranking government officials visiting from Bangkok. This was part of an “unofficial tradition” in the province, going back many years. Only a few officers were held accountable.
Furthermore, in 2015, Police Major General Paween Pongsirin led a team of investigators and prosecutors in uncovering a criminal syndicate responsible for trafficking tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar as well as Bangladeshis, resulting in the arrest of 91 individuals. However, Pongsirin had to flee the country later that year, following threats by Thai authorities against his life.
Despite problems with that trial, Thailand has made some progress. On July 19, 2017, a court in Bangkok convicted 62 defendants of crimes including human trafficking. The court convicted senior Thai government and military officials, including a senior military officer, sentenced to 27 years imprisonment.
Amend Thailand Immigration Act and Screening of Trafficking Survivors
To this day, and contrary to Thai law, Thai authorities categorise many trafficking survivors as “illegal migrants” and lock them up in immigration detention centres (IDC). This has been an issue raised by anti-trafficking practitioners in Thailand for over a decade.
Research conducted in 2016 shows there is a disincentive for survivors of trafficking to cooperate with authorities, citing drawn-out trial proceedings, distrust of authorities because of corruption, and prosecution under the Immigration Act. There is need for cooperation between local civil society, affected communities, and the authorities to build trust and bridge understanding, so witnesses and survivors can be confident in seeking assistance. Most helpful would be for Thai authorities to protect refugees, migrants, and survivors of trafficking.
In the case of Thailand, trafficking cannot be considered separate from the larger topic of migration. The 1979 Immigration Act does not distinguish between refugees and any other foreigners who enter the country. All are equally subject to arrest, detention, and deportation leading to possible refoulement and re-trafficking. For example, many Rohingya refugees coming out of IDCs are at risk to trafficking, particularly given Thailand’s longstanding practice of “soft deportations”—a process through which Thai authorities deport, and in some cases forcibly return, refugees and survivors of trafficking to areas along the Thailand-Myanmar border or Thailand-Malaysian border, often directly into the hands of traffickers.
Currently, Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. For example, Pakistanis, Somalis, and Rohingya people, regardless of their categorisation as human trafficking survivors, refugees, or “illegal migrants,” are subject to protracted detention in IDCs. Thailand should amend the Immigration Act to recognise refugees in a separate category and give both refugees and trafficking survivors protection under the law.
The new Guidelines to Enhance Efficiency of Human Trafficking Victim Identification remove the previous 24-hour deadline to identify a survivor. That deadline was arbitrary and resulted in authorities making quick and uninformed decisions to identify whether someone should be classified as a survivor of trafficking. The new guidelines for screening will hopefully lessen the extent to which survivors of trafficking are erroneously labelled “illegal migrants” and instead correctly identify and provide trafficking survivors with the necessary legal and other assistance they require.
Overall, Thailand has strong, thorough legal mechanisms in place to take action against human trafficking. However, Thailand falters in practice. There is need for practical implementation of laws and policies. The Thai government should cooperate with regional partners to protect refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers who are particularly at risk of trafficking. Without implementing key domestic laws and prosecuting perpetrators, Thailand will continue to fall behind in addressing the complex global problem of trafficking in persons.
John Quinley III (@johnquinley3) is an Associate Human Rights Specialist with Fortify Rights. He is currently pursuing an MA in Slavery and Liberation from the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: CC by Reinhard Link/Flickr.