Migrants mistakenly held in Thai trafficking shelters

Migrant workers detained by military personnel during a 2016 crackdown on illegal migrant workers at a market in Bangkok, Thailand. (Reuters pic)

BANGKOK: Thai shelters are hosting a record number of potential trafficking victims but many are in fact smuggled migrants, human rights campaigners said, as the southeast Asian nation seeks to boost its anti-trafficking credentials.

Thailand broadened the scope of its anti-trafficking law in April to include forced labour as an offence, following criticism of its failure to stop slavery and trafficking in its multi-billion-dollar seafood and sex industries.

Some 1,496 potential trafficking victims are being held in nine government shelters, awaiting trial or repatriation, according to the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, which oversees anti-trafficking efforts.

“We are almost reaching full capacity… as there have been large amounts of forced labour victims, especially after amending the law,” the ministry’s permanent secretary Porametee Vimolsiri told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“In some cases, they may initially be identified by police as trafficking victims, but turn out not being victims after they are interviewed.”

The US State Department this year in its annual flagship report ranking nations on their anti-trafficking efforts criticised Thailand for not doing enough to tackle the problem.

A record-breaking 1,159 human trafficking victims have been rescued in Thailand so far this year, the human security ministry said, outstripping the previous high of 982 in 2015.

Most are migrants from neighbouring Myanmar, transiting through Thailand to work in Malaysian factories, it said.

Activists questioned whether all those rescued by police were trafficked – which involves exploiting people for financial gain – rather than smuggled, which merely means entering another country illegally, often willingly.

“Human trafficking is a political issue,” said Adisorn Kerdmongkol, a coordinator at the Migrant Working Group, a network of non-governmental organisations promoting migrant rights.

“When people aren’t interested in this subject, there are fewer cases of trafficking. But once Thailand needs to show that we have performed well in combatting trafficking, then there will be lots of cases.”

There are about 4.9 million migrants in Thailand, making up more than 10% of the country’s workforce, according to the United Nations. Most are from poorer neighbouring countries including Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

“If they are misidentified as trafficking victims by the government, instead of helping them, it is violating their human rights,” said Nattaya Petcharat, a project coordinator at Stella Maris Seafarers’ Centre, which helps migrants.

“Instead of being able to earn money from work, they lack freedom,” she said, adding that the high number people in shelters will also lead to lower quality services and stress for both victims and officials.