Myanmar migrant workers prepare a fishing boat in the Thai coastal province of Samut Sakhon. Thailand’s labor market remains home to widespread human trafficking and blatant exploitation, rights groups say. (Photo: AFP)
Thirty-three Thai policeman and state officials are being investigated for engaging in people smuggling along the Thai-Myanmar border or doing nothing to stop the practice, local authorities say.
Of the accused, over 20 are police officers who stand accused of aiding the cross-border smuggling of migrant workers on behalf of businesses that employ migrant laborers illegally.
In addition, many of the accused are suspected of having aided trafficking networks to varying degrees, according to Damrongsak Kittiprapas, deputy chief of the Royal Thai Police.
The involvement of police officers and state officials has come to light after stepped-up scrutiny of Thailand’s porous border with Myanmar in recent weeks.
The government suspects that the ongoing second wave of the coronavirus in the country was triggered last month by Myanmar migrant workers who crossed illegally into Thailand while sidestepping disease control measures and began working at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon, a province near Bangkok.
“After tracing the migrant workers’ route into Samut Sakhon, we found that most received direct assistance from more than 20 Thai police officials and eight civilians,” Damrongsak said.
The accused allegedly smuggled the workers across the border and provided transport for them to get to Samut Sakhon, the senior police officer said.
Thailand has long been facing criticism for failing to stop extensive people smuggling into the country from its poorer neighbors for the benefit of its seafood, construction and textile industries where migrant laborers are often employed on low wages in punishing and often degrading lines of work.
Many police officers are believed to be actively engaged in smuggling operations or else do nothing to stop them, according to foreign and local rights groups.
Even when transnational smuggling operations are uncovered, the perpetrators are often allowed to escape scot-free without any prosecution, people familiar with the issue say.
“Multi-agency collaboration is one of the most powerful weapons we have against migrant smuggling,” Gen. Nathatorn Prousoontorn, chief of the Thai Immigration Bureau, said at a symposium held by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
“As transnational crime flourishes in the gaps between law enforcement agencies, a joined-up approach is essential to disrupt the activities of smugglers,” he added.
In a report issued in 2019, the UNODC said four out of five irregular migrant workers were smuggled into Thailand by networks that regularly received help from Thai officials on the take.
“Some groups are reported to operate under the watch or control of corrupt officials who enable them to smuggle migrants into Thailand without interference,” the report said.
Once migrants are brought illegally into Thailand, many of them end up being trafficked into the sex trade or else wind up in low-paid jobs with grueling menial work, the UN agency says.
“[These] migrants are vulnerable to exploitation in the commercial sex trade, garment factories, domestic services, agricultural and construction industries and the fishing and seafood sectors,” the report said.
At an especial disadvantage are Rohingya boat people who seek to enter Thailand after fleeing Myanmar, where they were made persona non grata by the country’s military during and after large-scale ethnic cleansing in 2017.
“Thai officials were convicted in 2017 of various charges including murder, torture, rape, money laundering and human trafficking. Some officials reportedly stopped some [smuggling] boats and demanded payment before allowing them to proceed,” the UNODC said.
“To maximize their profits, knowing that law enforcement and border control agencies will seize or destroy the vessel if the clandestine journey is detected, smugglers typically crowd as many people as possible onto old and inexpensive vessels.”