News analysis

Thailand must do more to manage migrants

Long-term policy necessary for a lasting impact and to combat human trafficking

While Thailand had hoped for a better rating in a human trafficking report last Monday, few observers were surprised that it remains lodged in the bottom tier for its anti-trafficking efforts.

The most obvious reason for this is that the United States' annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report takes into account the period preceding March 31, before the Thai government started a concerted crackdown on trafficking networks. These efforts began after the horrific discovery of mass graves of trafficked victims on the Thai-Malaysian border in May.

But ongoing court cases related to people smuggling and migrant workers have not done Thailand credit either.

A prominent case involves the trial of two journalists from a small news website called Phuketwan, arising from a defamation lawsuit brought by the Thai Navy. The navy alleged defamation over a paragraph that Phuketwan cited from a Pulitzer Prize-winning story which exposed official complicity in the smuggling of Rohingya migrants through Thailand.

However, it did not sue Reuters, the news agency behind the story.

The trial is now over and the court will give its verdict on Sept 1.

Another case involves the murder of two British tourists on the southern resort island of Koh Tao last year. The two workers from Myanmar accused of the deed claim they were tortured into making their confessions, which they have since retracted.

While the validity of both cases has yet to be determined by the courts, the circumstances surrounding them continue to cast doubts over Thailand's treatment of migrants and its commitment to combating human trafficking. Experts estimate that three million to four million migrants work in Thailand; the majority vulnerable to abuse because they lack the necessary legal documents. This does not include the thousands smuggled into the country en-route to a third destination.

Thailand, while disagreeing with the ranking, has said it will "continue to do its utmost to overcome the remaining challenges, while promoting security and upholding our long and distinguished tradition of adherence to humanitarianism".

What happens in the next few months will be more telling.

Police have indicted 72 suspects for human trafficking-related offences. The courts will have to decide whether to take up the cases before any culprits can be penalised.

Meanwhile, the military government's recent efforts to rein in the fishing industry - the subject of regular allegations of coerced labour - will need to be backed up by tight and sustained monitoring for them to have real effect.

On a positive note, the recent conclusion of labour agreements between Thailand and Vietnam will allow unregistered Vietnamese workers - of whom there are estimated to be about 100,000 - to get some protection.

Human rights advocates have, for months, called for the US to retain Thailand's bottom-tier status to motivate it into putting more effort against trafficking. But some Thai nationalists feel the TIP decision is politically motivated and have dismissed the report.

What's clear is that since taking power in May last year, the military government has tried to impose some form of order on the otherwise patchy way in which migrants are managed in the country.

But human rights lecturer Sriprapha Petcharamesree of Mahidol University says "there needs to be a long-term policy about migrant workers", for current efforts to have a lasting impact.

This policy needs to address the rights and responsibilities of migrant workers, rather than leave these to the vagaries of the market.

Perhaps only then - when Thailand has created a fair and inclusive way of managing its migrants - would TIP ratings cease to matter so much.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2015, with the headline 'News analysis Thailand must do more to manage migrants'. Print Edition | Subscribe