Sakchai Lalit/AP
Migrant workers unload frozen fish from a boat at a fish market in Samut Sakhon Province, west of Bangkok, Friday, June 20, 2014. The United States has blacklisted Thailand and Malaysia for failing to meet its minimum standards in fighting human trafficking, a move that could strain relations with two important U.S. partners in Asia. Thailand had mounted a determined campaign to prevent a downgrade that could exact a reputational cost on its lucrative seafood and shrimp industries for which America is a key market.

Why US ranks Thailand with North Korea, Iran on human trafficking abuses

The US State Department downgraded Thailand to its lowest ranking on its annual report, opening up the possibility of economic sanctions. Police and border guards are accused of working with traffickers. 

Ama was fifteen when she was sold into sex slavery. She left her village in rural Cambodia on the advice of a neighbor who said she could get work in a bar in Thailand and make money to send home to her family. At the border, she was met by a Thai man who seized her possessions, beat her when she resisted getting into his car, and sold her to a brothel in Bangkok.

At the brothel Ama (not her real name) was told she owed her employers thousands of dollars for "buying" her off the man and would have to work to clear the debt. Trapped with no money or means of escape Ama worked up to twelve hours a night servicing brothel clients for almost ten months until she was rescued in a police raid two years ago. Today she's employed as a jewelry maker at a women's shelter in Bangkok. 

She is one of tens of thousands of victims of trafficking in Thailand according to the US State Department, which on Friday relegated the country to Tier 3 – the worst level – in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. The downgrade puts Thailand, a US treaty ally and the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, on a par with countries like North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

The TIP report ranks countries based on their efforts to combat abuses such as forced labor and sex trafficking. Its authors said Thailand had made some progress towards prosecuting traffickers and cleaning up forced labor, but that not enough was being done to stop corrupt officials, including police and border guards who collude with traffickers.

The ranking opens the possibility of US economic sanctions and the blocking of aid from institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, if Thailand doesn't take action. It has also sparked concerns of Western boycotts on Thailand's lucrative fishing and agriculture industries, which have been linked to the use of slave labour in recent media and NGO reports.

“We are obviously disappointed and respectfully disagree with the State Department’s decision,” Thai ambassador to Washington, Vijavat Isarabhakdi said in a statement. “In 2013, Thailand made significant advances in prevention and suppression of human trafficking along the same lines as the State Department’s standards.”

However, while the political and economic ramifications could be felt in Thailand for some time, those on the ground who have direct contact with traffickers and victims say it will take much more than one report to bring about real change. 

“The report will have an impact only on political decision makers,” says Sebastian Baumeister, South East Asia regional expert in people trafficking at the United Nations. “On the ground I don’t expect it will have a big impact straight away.”

Magnet for migrants

Thailand is a regional magnet for migrants; many enter illegally, making them vulnerable to exploitation. Mr. Baumeister says Thailand needs to work with its neighbors to warn would-be migrants about the risks of slavery and trafficking and teach them to spot danger signals. Stricter inspections at workplaces and pressure on exploitative employers would also help, though many don't see themselves as players in an international slave trade.

“They don’t always perceive themselves as traffickers, they are just trying to make money,” Baumeister says.

Mynt is a former slave broker from Myanmar (Burma) who now works undercover to help rescue Burmese fishermen trapped in bonded labour. Speaking on the phone from an undisclosed location, he predicts things could even get worse for trafficking victims before they get better.

“The report will mean the authorities try to clamp down and for a time there will be a lot of pressure,” he says. “But that won’t stop the criminals it will only push their operations down…so [the enslaved workers] will be harder to reach.” 

Thailand’s military junta that seized power last month has pledged to do more to tackle illegal migrant labour in the country and prosecute trafficking gangs. The report covers the period before the coup.

Mass exodus

On Friday, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha said in his weekly televised address the junta plans to "regulate" migrant work in Thailand to limit the risks of exploitation from trafficking. His address came just days after rumors of a sweeping crackdown on migrant workers in Thailand a mass exodus of over 170,000 Cambodian workers who feared retribution for having entered the country illegally.

Aidan McQuade, director of Slavery International in London, says Thailand needs to be careful not to send the wrong message about migrant labour.

“There’s a common perception among people who are new to the issue of forced labour that all you need is an immigration response,” he says, adding that Thailand should be making it easier – not harder – for migrants to enter the country as the economy depends on them. “I would hope that the likes of John Kerry would be having conversations with the junta saying this is not what you should be doing.”

Instead, Mr. McQuade says, the roots of forced labour need to be addressed – in particular the recruitment system. Migrants often fall prey to traffickers because they have trouble getting visas or are asked to pay extortionate prices to enter countries, and this leaves them indebted to their facilitators. 

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