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Human Trafficking in Thailand – What the Trafficking in Persons Report (Tip) Doesn’t Say



Human trafficking in the “land of smiles” is often underestimated by the government and overestimated by some NGOs


CHIANG RAI – The Trafficking in Persons report helps place modern-day slavery high on the policy agenda, but a more accurate assessment of the Thai context is needed

Thailand is well known as a destination country for migrant children and adults in search for better economic conditions. Human trafficking in the “land of smiles” is often underestimated by the government and overestimated by some NGOs. Until today, an unknown number of migrants and Thai find themselves in conditions of exploitation, more specifically forced labor and sexual exploitation, often related to debt bondage. The low protection and the collusion of some local authorities with perpetrators, as well as the slow response of the criminal justice system, makes the slavery business highly attractive for criminal networks.

The yearly Trafficking in Persons Report (Tip) report is an important and useful tool to compare human trafficking – as defined by the United States. But for academic researchers, the report could be more valuable if it was accompanied by qualitative up-to-date research to allow for meaningful evaluation and analysis of the trends on human trafficking.

Thailand, for example, was granted a second waiver from an automatic downgrade to Tier 3 in this year’s report, keeping it on the Tier 2 watch list. Unfortunately, the narratives on Thailand in the report don’t add significant information to the previous reports.

What the TIP report didn’t mention is that the recruitment and exploitation of children in Thailand often follows geographic and ethnic patterns. According to a 2012 report by Trafcord, an organization set up in 2002 to tackle human trafficking in northern Thailand, central and southern Thai migrants are more vulnerable to different kinds of exploitation, while northern Thailand is more prone to child sex trafficking.

It is clear that decisions on where to place a country on the Tip list has diplomatic implications, but any decisions for next year must factor in the above, as well as the following.

First, researchers, policymakers and law enforcement agencies still do not exactly know the extent of the current situation and trends of exploitation of people in Thailand. In contrast to the mass donations that flow to NGOs, academic research on human trafficking in Thailand isn’t being adequately funded. In order to adopt prevention strategies, an accurate and realistic picture of the current situation, trends and enslavement practices is needed. There is a huge need for reliable unbiased empirical academic research in Thailand that is backed up by government data and NGO reports.

Second, the Thai Ministry of Social Security and Development should strictly control the NGOs working with children and victims of human trafficking. Foreign and Thai NGOs should be registered according to legislation in Thailand. The proliferation of NGOs that simply rent a house and use children to fundraise is obstructing efforts to tackle human trafficking. This in turn makes children vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation and second victimization.

Third, the 2013 Tip report on Thailand focuses almost exclusively on the victims and doesn’t addressed the demand side. Adults are the end users of sexual exploitation. More needs to be done to educate people about the legislation that prevents such acts as well as the importance of the rights of the child.

Lastly, it is important for the Tip report (and the foreign policy it influences) to focus on the quality of education. Education is the key to countering the exploitation of people in the long-term, and benefits society as a whole – including the key players in modern-day slavery: from victims to perpetrators and communities, behaviours and attitudes are changed with education.

Despite the information gaps, the Tip report remains a valuable instrument and puts the need to tackle modern-day slavery high on the policy agenda. Whatever the reservations about bias or political manipulation, the Tip report remains an important wake up call for Thai authorities; a call to prioritise the issue by implementing the promised written plans in the field.

Sam Derbali is a PhD researcher in criminology, justice administration and society at Mahidol University, Thailand. He tweets as @samderbali



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