Will reform initiatives be able to stop a dangerous trade?

Thailand is a major source, destination, and transit country for men, women and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. The problem is serious enough that it was kept at Tier 3 level in the 2015 TIP Report – the United States Trafficking in Persons Report.

Under the TIP ranking system, Tier 3 refers to countries whose governments do not comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum requirements, and are not making significant efforts to do so.

While the report noted Thailand had taken some steps to improve trafficking related laws and coordination between agencies combatting trafficking, it said it had not done enough, during the April 2014 – March 2015 reporting period, for “tangible progress on its formidable human trafficking problem.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Thai military does not believe the report adequately reflects the efforts undertaken. And indeed, my recent study examining the reporting period showed that while human trafficking is still an undoubted and considerable problem, the military government had in fact made significant attempts to address the issue at all levels.

The military government’s strategy to combat human trafficking in the reporting period is broken into three phases. Phase one begins in June 2014 and ends in November 2014. The transition from phase one to two began in November. Phase two began in December and ended in February. Finally, phase began in March. It was still in swing when the 2015 US TIP reporting period came to an end.

Phase one was primarily labour intensive. Labour, illegal migration, corruption and human trafficking are interrelated issues, and the goals were to re-regulate illegal migrant workers, which entailed their registration, and the establishment of a new labour management policy.

The objectives were to identify and understand the roles of the actors involved in the trafficking process; to learn about the migrants and the causes of migration; to solicit input from key government, business and civil society figures on solutions to the problems; and, finally, to develop solutions that overlap the three issue areas – labour, trafficking and corruption.

Actions undertaken included inter-agency cooperation in investigations and inspection of the labour sector and, in particular, the fishing industry; coordination and cooperation with the International Labor Organization (ILO) for the development and adoption of good labour practices; and, the implementation of the pilot labour management policy in Samut Sakhon and Ranong provinces.

Public meetings were held on trafficking; political and security personnel under investigation for involvement in it were transferred; and, raids and arrests were carried out by law enforcement. The Royal Thai Police also began its review of the law enforcement strategy, which was implemented in the second phase.

Further initiatives included bilateral and regional discussions on trafficking and illegal migration, the creation of the Special Economic Zones to address the underlying causes of trafficking, and border security.

Phase two went further, to include the nature and process of human trafficking and the role of the security sector. The goals were to address the lack of enforcement of existing laws; to pass and implement the laws needed for labour, immigration and security sector reforms; and to articulate and implement a new law enforcement strategy.


Army General Manas Kongpan (right), one of 88 suspects recently arrested on charges of human trafficking in Thailand. Photo: AP

The objectives were to pass and implement legislation needed for labour sector reform, and included educating employers about trafficking. In an effort to ensure compliance, investigations and inspections of the labour sector would continue and amendments would be made to the 2008 Human Trafficking Prevention and Suppression Act so that informants, witnesses and victims are protected.

To add a further deterrent, the penalties for involvement in the trafficking process would increase. Finally, the national action plan would be implemented, and efforts made to facilitate coordination and cooperation among the security bodies.

This phase saw the successful passage of legislation pertaining to the labour sector and human trafficking; the announcement of a new national action plan by the Royal Thai police; arrests, inspections and raids; and, the establishment of the Transnational Crime Coordination Center (TCCC).

The national action plan and the establishment of the TCCC (in cooperation with Australia) are significant developments. In the action plan, security bodies were assigned responsibility for the targeted areas. The Immigration Police Bureau was tasked with forced labor and illegal migration; the Central Investigation Bureau was tasked with sexual exploitation; the Metropolitan Police was tasked with organised begging; and, the Anti-Trafficking Division was tasked with human trafficking. Each one was paired with border and checkpoint security units at the transit routes.

In the final phase, a systematic approach was adopted, to address the root causes of human trafficking.

This, in combination with the measures in the previous phases, seeks to create a climate for coordination and cooperation among the police, prosecutors and the courts; to provide specific timelines for investigation and prosecution of cases; to establish special courts; and, to develop a computerised human trafficking database, which also links the police, prosecutors and courts.

This can be seen as a sincere effort to combat the problem in a ‘big picture’ manner, and seen as a whole, it can certainly be argued that Thailand has improved and continued its efforts to combat trafficking, illegal migration, and corruption. The United States Government has recognised this and it is likely these and further measures will be noted in the 2016 US TIP Report.

Human trafficking is a significant and serious problem, and in Thailand the exploitation of desperate and vulnerable people has filtered into many levels of society. To successfully combat it, continued vigilance and the participation of all actors, from the government to civil society, are needed – and it has taken other countries years before they were upgraded.

For Thailand, it should not take years with will, commitment, passion, and faith in the belief that the changes made today will ensure a more humane society for tomorrow’s generation.

Dr Rachael M Rudolph is a lecturer and researcher at Webster University, Thailand.

This article is published as a collaboration between New Mandala and Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for analysis and discussion on public policy.