Thailand says over 100 people have been held in human trafficking blitz on seafood industry

Workers sort fish at a wholesale market for fish and other seafood in Thailand. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thai police said on Monday that (Feb 1) over 100 people have been arrested in a crackdown on human trafficking since the European Union threatened to boycott the country's multi-billion dollar fishing industry over the issue.

The EU hit Thailand with a "yellow card" warning last April, threatening to ban all seafood exports unless the military government tackled rampant illegal fishing and labour abuses among its fleets.

A delegation from Brussels visited the kingdom last month to assess progress but did not say when it would reach a decision on the boycott, which could cost Thailand US$1 billion (S$1.42 billion) annually.

Thailand is the world's third-largest exporter of seafood - a status that rights groups say is achieved through overfishing and a reliance on low-paid trafficked workers from neighbouring countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia.

It is desperate to avoid any costly sanctions on the fishing sector.

Police insist they have ramped up efforts to straighten out the industry.

Since the EU "yellow card" more than 100 people have been arrested over labour abuses and trafficking and around 130 freed from vessels and factories, according to police figures.

"These cases show that Thailand has a strong political will to deal with the issue of human trafficking," deputy national police spokesman Colonol Krisana Pattanacharoen told reporters.

Rights groups accuse Thai officials of allowing people-trafficking to flourish in exchange for hefty bribes.

Trafficking survivors freed from Thai fishing fleets have told grim tales of horrendous working conditions, beatings and even killings at sea.

The Environmental Justice Foundation, a British non-governmental organnisation that has worked with the Thai government to address its fishing woes, says there have been positive changes in fishing legislation.

But concerns remain that police mainly target low-level smugglers.

"A very simple benchmark for real progress will be when you start seeing senior Thai figures in courts going through a process of a successful prosecution for their role," the foundation's executive director Steven Trent told AFP.

Thailand later this year will also face renewed assessment of its anti-trafficking efforts by the US government, which has given the country the worst-possible rating in a annual trafficking report two years in a row.

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