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Should Thailand be Downgraded to Tier 3 in Trafficking in Persons Report?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
March 7, 2014

Rohingya-Thailand-detention-center Rohingya Muslims gather at the Immigration Detention Center during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Kanchanaburi province in July 2013. The stateless people arrived in Thailand in early 2013 after fleeing a bloody conflict between the Buddhist and Muslims in Myanmar's western Rakhine State. A Reuters report claims Thailand has clandestinely been removing Rohingya migrants from detention centers to deliver them to human traffickers (Athit Perawongmetha/Courtesy: Reuters).

The State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report likely will be released in June. Despite warranting a lower rating, Thailand has barely escaped being downgraded to Tier 3, the lowest possible rating in the report, for five years now. Although Thailand almost certainly has deserved to be put in the lowest tier, because of the massive amount of human trafficking routed through Thailand and the complicity of Thai government officials. Thailand has been exempted from the downgrade for years because of close ties between the United States and the kingdom, including cooperation on many other issues. Washington basically did not want to offend Thailand’s government by lumping it in at the bottom of the report, in Tier 3, alongside countries like Congo (DRC), Mauritania, and Sudan. Countries in Tier 3 are states “whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards [on combating trafficking in persons] and are not making significant efforts to do so,” according to the definition provided by the TIP report.

It is now becoming harder and harder for even strong advocates of the U.S.-Thai relationship to ignore mounting evidence that Thailand deserves to be dropped into Tier 3. Reports this winter revealed that Thai immigration officials, naval troops, and other authorities have collaborated to dump Rohingya fleeing Myanmar into trafficking networks.  The Royal Thai Navy’s response? When reporters from a local Phuket-based news outlet ran another story about the Thai military’s compliance in human trafficking, a piece that utilized some of Reuters’ reporting, the military sued the reporters.

But the Thai authorities do not appear to be doing anything more substantial than trying to silence critics of trafficking in the kingdom. Now, the Environmental Justice Foundation, a London-based nonprofit, has released a detailed, scathing report  chronicling the use of slavery in Thailand’s fishing and seafood industry. It is hardly the first such report to examine slavery in the Thai fishing industry, but it is one of the most compelling. It also suggests that despite promises to crack down on trafficking, the Thai government, which is consumed by Thailand’s domestic political struggles, had made little serious effort to do so.  It is time for the U.S. State Department to recognize the grim reality of trafficking in the kingdom.

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