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Thailand's rampant trafficking may carry price

Saturday - 6/14/2014, 2:11am  ET

In this March 11, 2014 photo, Burmese migrants who were trafficked wait for their bus as they are about to return to their country, at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia. Tens of thousands of invisible migrants are trafficked annually through Thailand, Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

MARGIE MASON
Associated Press

AMBON, Indonesia (AP) -- He was too sick to eat, and Min Min Chan's chest ached with each breath he sucked. It didn't matter: The Thai captain warned him to get back on deck and start hauling fish onto the trawler or be tossed overboard. As a 17-year-old slave stuck in the middle of the sea, he knew no one would come looking if he simply vanished.

Less than a month earlier, Chan had left Myanmar for neighboring Thailand, looking for work. Instead, he said a broker tricked and sold him onto the fishing boat for $616. He ended up far away in Indonesian waters before even realizing what was happening.

Tens of thousands of invisible migrants like Chan stream into Thailand, Southeast Asia's second-largest economy, every year. Many are used as forced labor in various industries, especially on long-haul fishing boats that catch seafood eaten in the U.S. and around the world. Others are dragged into the country's booming sex industry. Ethnic Rohingya asylum seekers from neighboring Myanmar are also held for ransom in abysmal jungle camps.

Next week, when a U.S. report on human trafficking comes out, Thailand may be punished for allowing that exploitation. The country has been on a U.S. State Department human trafficking watch list for the past four years. Washington warned in last year's report that without major improvements, it would be dropped to the lowest rung, Tier 3, joining the ranks of North Korea, Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe.

Though Thailand says it is trying to prevent such abuses and punish traffickers, its authorities have been part of the problem. The U.S. has said the involvement of corrupt officials appears to be widespread, from protecting brothels and workplaces to cooperating directly with traffickers.

A downgrade could lead the U.S. to pull back certain forms of foreign support and exchange programs as well as oppose assistance from international financial institutions such as the World Bank. Washington has already cut some assistance to Bangkok following last month's Thai military coup.

Thailand is paying a U.S. public relations company $51,000 a month to help in its push for better standing. The government issued a progress report for 2013, noting that investigations, prosecutions and the budget for anti-trafficking work all are on the rise.

"We recognize that it's a very serious, very significant problem, and we've been building a legal and bureaucratic framework to try to address these issues," said Vijavat Isarabhakdi, Thailand's ambassador to the U.S. "We feel that we have turned a corner and are making great progress in this area."

At least 38 Thai police were punished last year or are being investigated for alleged involvement in trafficking, but none has stood trial yet. Four companies have been fined, and criminal charges against five others are pending. But the government pulled the licenses of only two of the country's numerous labor recruitment agencies.

In Geneva on Wednesday, Thailand was the only government in the world to vote against a new U.N. international treaty that combats forced labor by, among other things, strengthening victims' access to compensation. Several countries abstained.

"Thailand tries to portray itself as the victim while, at the same time, it's busy taking advantage of everybody it can who's coming through the country," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. "The exploitation of migrants, the trafficking, it comes through Thailand because people know they can pay people in the government and in the police to look the other way."

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Chan's story is a common nightmare. A recruiter showed up in his village in Myanmar, also known as Burma, offering good money to work on a fishing boat in Thailand. Chan said after sneaking across the border by foot, he was sold onto a boat by the broker and told to hide inside to avoid being seen by Thai authorities.

"'You have to work at least six months. After that, you can go back home,'" Chan said the captain told him. "I decided, 'I can work for six months on this boat.'"

But after the ship docked 17 days later on eastern Indonesia's Ambon island, Chan met other Burmese workers who told a very different story: There was no six-month contract and no escape. Now thousands of miles from home, he realized he no longer owned his life -- it had become a debt that must be paid.

Ambon, in the Banda Sea, is peppered with churches and pristine dive sites. At the port, deep-sea fishermen in tattered T-shirts and rubber boots form human chains on boats, tossing bag after bag of frozen snapper and other fish into pickup trucks bound for cold storage. Much of it will later be shipped to Thailand for export.

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