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Asia struggles with specter of human trafficking

Annual US report highlights widespread problem

Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh

Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh

Published: July 01, 2016 09:21 AM GMT

Updated: July 01, 2016 09:25 AM GMT

Asia struggles with specter of human trafficking

Human trafficking suspects arrive at the criminal court in Bangkok in this Nov. 10, 2015 file photo. Dozens of people arrested in Thailand's human trafficking crackdown, including a senior general, appeared in court days after the police officer in charge of the probe resigned saying he feared for his life. (Photo by AFP)

In spite of a year that revealed some of the worst revelations of official complicity in human trafficking, Thailand was upgraded on the U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report, released June 30.

Among East, Southeast and South Asian nations, only the Philippines, Taiwan and South Korea received Tier 1 placements. Much of the region was placed on either Tier 2 or the Tier 2 Watch List, while Myanmar was downgraded to Tier 3.

The move to upgrade Thailand from Tier 3, the lowest ranking, to the Tier 2 Watch List drew ire from some rights groups who called the decision "premature."

In a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a coalition of 21 international groups including the Uniting Church in Australia, Anti-Slavery International and Freedom Fund said the ranking "could undermine international efforts to significantly and permanently improve working conditions among migrant workers in Thailand, including those in the fishing and seafood processing sectors."

While there is little reliable data available, as many as 200,000 unregistered migrant workers are thought to be employed in Thailand's fishing industry, many of them laboring in slave-like conditions.

Returned fishermen have reported having their passports confiscated, wages withheld, and being force-fed narcotics in order to work upwards of 20 hours a day, along with regular physical violence.

Kerry highlighted the story of one such Cambodian fisherman in Thailand in a speech marking the report's launch.

On arriving in Thailand, he "was forced to work on a fishing vessel. He was beaten regularly with a metal pole, compelled to drink water from fish barrels, allowed little rest," Kerry said.

Investigative reports in recent years have brought the issue to the fore and Thailand has made efforts to regulate the industry.

While the report highlighted those issues, it also noted Thailand "is making significant efforts" to eliminate trafficking, including a raft of laws and more investigation and convictions of ship owners.

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While some campaigners have warned that few substantive changes have been made, several commended the upgrade including the Bangkok-based Migrant Worker Rights Network, which has been one of the most outspoken advocates of migrant rights.

In a statement, the Thai government vowed that in spite of the upgrade "it will by no means be complacent."

Cambodia and the Philippines also received upgrades, while Myanmar and Hong Kong both saw their rankings dip.

Hong Kong was downgraded to the Tier 2 Watch List, with the report highlighting few convictions and weak sentences for known traffickers.

The country has particularly struggled to protect the rights of nearly 350,000 domestic workers, some of whom have faced grave abuse at the hands of their employers.

In response, the Hong Kong government issued a statement rejecting the report, claiming it "is not doing justice" to the true situation.

Myanmar fared the worst, however, with its ranking dropping to Tier 3 after failing to improve in four years.

"Although Burma meets the criteria for the Tier 2 Watch List, because it has been on the Tier 2 Watch List for four years, it is no longer eligible for that ranking and is therefore ranked Tier 3," the report noted.

The report highlights the situation of Rohingya, who "are at an increased risk of trafficking."

Some 120,000 of the Muslim minority live in squalid conditions in internally displaced persons camps, while tens of thousands have fled via risky sea passages.

The report noted that a number fell prey to traffickers en route, "abducted and sold into forced labor en route to other countries, or were sold into forced marriage in Malaysia."

"Complicit officials in Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia reportedly facilitated the smuggling and exploitation of Rohingya migrants," the report said.

Rohingya trafficking camps and scores of mass graves were discovered last year along the Thai-Malaysian border. While the Thai government launched a large-scale crackdown, arresting dozens of police, soldiers and officials among the traffickers, the survivors remain imprisoned in immigration centers.

In spite of the crackdown, many rights groups have argued that the trafficking camps, which appeared to have been in existence for years, could not have existed without high-level government complicity.  

A rare bright spot in the region was the Philippines, which was upgraded to Tier 1 in spite of pervasive numbers of migrant workers being "subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor — predominantly via debt bondage — in the fishing, shipping, construction, education, nursing, and agricultural industries, as well as in domestic work, janitorial services, and other hospitality-related jobs."

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