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Thailand Human Trafficking Problems Continue to Draw Scrutiny

Cambodian trafficked fishermen return from Indonesia after being freed or escaping from slave-like conditions on Thai fishing vessels, talks to journalists at the Phnom Penh International airport on December 12, 2011. Thousands of men from Myanmar and Cam

Thai authorities are bracing themselves for a possible downgrade on the U.S. State Department’s watch list of countries with the worst records in combating human trafficking.

Thailand was initially classified as a Tier Two country on the Trafficking in Persons list in 2010 for not complying with minimum standards required to address the trafficking of people. If a country shows no sign of improvement after two years at that level it automatically drops into the bottom, or Tier Three, list alongside North Korea, Cuba and Burma.

This can potentially trigger non-humanitarian sanctions.

Groups like Human Rights Watch and the Mirror Foundation say Thailand has experienced an increase in trafficking, in particular young girls, in recent years, putting it in jeopardy of joining the world’s worst offenders.

Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson told a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand that authorities have passed laws that should be sufficient to stem the tide of human trafficking, but there has been a reluctance to defend the rights of victims.

“Human trafficking has to be understood in the context of the migration of as many as two- to three-million migrant workers from Laos, Cambodia, and Burma who are in Thailand, many without documents and have no access to any sort of system that works for them," Robertson said.

Robertson says even those charged with breaking up trafficking rings are complicit in abuses against illegal workers. “The police themselves are frankly predatory. They see migrant workers as an opportunity to extort, abuse," he explained. "We have stories of instances where police have been involved in human-trafficking issues.”

Criticism has been particularly harsh after a preliminary report was released last year by the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Trafficking in Persons. It criticized Thailand for a weak and fragmented legal framework on trafficking, deep rooted corruption among law enforcement officers, and poor victim identification.

The report was backed by Eaklak Loomchomkhae from the Mirror Foundation.

He told the panel through an interpreter that there has been an increase in girls between age 11 and 15 being trafficked into prostitution. Because they are underage, they are not being forced to work out of brothels or karaoke bars and instead they are being ferried directly to the homes of clients.

He says this has made it difficult to detect the true extent of the problem. “These children’s clients, many of them are government servants or are well known people in their local area, so it is very difficult, hard, to follow them or do anything to them,” Loomchomkhae stated.

Thailand Ministry for Foreign Affairs Deputy Director General for International Organizations Chutintorn Gongsakdi defends the government’s anti-trafficking efforts, while facing a broad range of challenges in recent years.

“We are an upper middle-income country, according to the members of the committee on the rights of the child, and with that status comes greater expectation and we are finding it is not so easy to live up to those expectations," Gongskadi said. "But we have a willingness, we know we have those responsibilities.”

Gongskadi added his government has also accepted more than 130 recommendations from the U.N. report by the Special Rapporteur. But analysts say those steps may not be sufficient to sway the U.S. State Department from relegating Thailand to Tier Three status in its 2012 report, expected in June.