- A media barrage and EU ultimatum have increased pressure on the junta to act against illegal fishing and human trafficking.
- The junta has issued some new rules and policing measures to combat the scourge.
- The Thai authorities in July arrested dozens of people for trafficking, but experts wonder if prosecutors will follow through.
In the wake of renewed revelations of slavery aboard Thai-run fishing vessels in Indonesian waters and the discovery of people-smuggling camps and migrant mass graves near the Malaysia-Thailand border, Thailand’s ruling military junta has stepped up efforts to crack down on human trafficking and illegal fishing.
Further prodding has come from the EU’s threat to boycott Thai seafood if the country doesn’t clean up its act and from Thailand’s inclusion for a second straight year on the lowest rung of the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, released in July.
Skeptics, though, say the junta must do more to address what a torrent of investigations has identified as widespread slavery and illegality in the industry.
“They haven’t really looked into where the problems are,” asserted Patima Tangpratyakoon of the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LRPN), an NGO in Samut Sakhon province. “They’re just doing what they need to do to be able to continue to export fish.”
In March, the Associated Press published the first in an ongoing series of articles into Thai-run slave boats operating around the remote Indonesian island of Benjina and the link between slave-harvested seafood and major distributors and retailers in the West. The revelations came at a time when the Indonesian government was escalating a campaign against illegal foreign fishing vessels in its waters and the particulars of a cross-border trade in Rohingya and Bangladeshis, many of whom have been sold onto fishing boats via Thai jungle camps, were coming into fuller focus.
In April, the EU gave Thailand six months to curb illegal fishing in its seafood industry or face trade sanctions, with EU Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Commissioner Karmenu Vella citing “serious shortcomings in Thailand’s fisheries monitoring, fisheries control and sanctioning systems.”
“It’s the fishing fleets’ ability to operate outside the law that allows them to exploit and abuse fishermen with impunity on board their vessels,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.
Over the years, depletion of fish stocks has driven Thai vessels farther and farther into foreign waters, where they often fish illegally, skimming billions of dollars in stolen catches from neighboring countries. The longer distances and time spent at sea has meant higher costs for petrol and machinery, increasing the appeal of cheap or even free labor from workers trafficked onto boats. Former captives have spoken of being forced to work 18-20 hour days and experiencing physical and emotional abuse.
Paul Buckley, regional technical coordinator of the United Nations Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons (UN-ACT) in Bangkok, said “abuses in the industry have become pretty deeply entrenched over a number of years, which is pretty clear from all the reports.”
The exposés, he added, “have raised the profile of the issue to the degree that the government has to do something about it.”
Under Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Thai junta has pledged to tackle illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing as well as human trafficking. It has laid out a number of ministerial-level provisions on working conditions and on the need for written contracts and proper registration of workers in the seafood industry.
A new Fisheries Act, passed in January, requires boats to hold legal fishing equipment, licenses, registration and navigation systems to let them to be tracked by the authorities. It also mandates inspections of vessels and regular reviews of working conditions. Enforcement of boat registration has been cited as remiss, spurring a “ghost” fleet of unregistered pirate ships that fly false flags and plunder foreign waters.
The junta has further created a high-level anti-trafficking committee and updated the 2008 Anti-Trafficking Act to protect whistleblowers and raise penalties for traffickers.
“The policy approach is sound, since the Thai government is trying to pull the fleets back to a place where they can start regulating them,” Robertson said. “But this is still a long way from taking effective action to thwart human trafficking.”
Ticked over TIP?
While acknowledging Thailand’s new legislation, the Trafficking in Persons report says the country has not made “significant efforts” to comply with minimum standards to eliminate the scourge.
Perhaps to be expected, the results were criticized by some in the Thai leadership. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Tier 3, the report’s lowest ranking, “does not accurately reflect the significant efforts undertaken by the government to tackle the problem.” Dozens of trafficking-related arrests were made after March 31, the State Department’s deadline for reporting.
Regardless, General Prayut has asked his countrymen to “stop blaming the U.S.” and acknowledged that Thailand still has work to do in combating trafficking.
Although the U.S. is not expected to issue sanctions, the ranking could hit Thailand’s seafood industry, experts say.
“The longer Thailand stays on Tier 3, the more difficult it becomes for international retailers not to act on these concerns,” Buckley explained, adding that the ranking draws negative attention to the sector.
“The Thai fisheries industry may expect more campaigns and advocacy, and ultimately economic impacts on the industry, if there is not proactive change from within.”
Actions met with skepticism
How that change will come about remains to be seen. Some were skeptical of the government’s will to enact some of its IUU policies or successfully prosecute those arrested on trafficking charges.
“In terms of anti-trafficking work over the past few years, there has been a lot of policy announced without much impact,” Buckley said. “We will have to see how much the current impetus will ultimately affect the operational level.”
Recent government action to combat trafficking has included the arrest of over 70 people suspected to be involved in the trade in Rohingya and Bangladeshis. Fifteen of those held on charges are Thai officials, including an army general.
Roberson said that while the arrests were promising developments, they should be viewed with a dash of skepticism. “I’ve seen too many times,” he explained, “that persons are arrested and charged with big fanfare and then the cases dawdle through the court system and eventually fade away as influential persons in the dock manage to delay the proceedings until the media limelight moves elsewhere.”
Most of the people targeted, said Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, an NGO that focuses on rights abuses in the Global South, are “relatively low-level in terms of their ranking in terms of seniority, yet the people behind this trade are often quite important wealthy individuals, and those are the people where ultimately the responsibility lies.”
Trent described the Thai government’s recent actions and legislation as “disjointed initiatives designed more for their PR value” than constructive engagement in dealing with the issues.
“What we need to see is active investigation followed by successful prosecution,” he said.
The Indonesian model
Sompong Srakaew of the LRPN would like to see Thailand and Indonesia work together to eliminate IUU fishing and related human rights abuses. Although the governments agreed in April to set up a joint task force to combat illegal fishing, Srakaew remains skeptical.
“So far we haven’t seen any real discussion between the two,” he said, adding that Indonesia deserves plaudits for the hard line it has taken against illegal fishing.
Among Indonesia’s actions has been the launching of a criminal inquiry into companies operating illegal boats around Benjina, the subject of the Associated Press investigation.
“We welcome the steps the Thai authorities have taken in recent weeks,” said Paul Dillon of International Organization for Migration in Indonesia, “but much yet needs to be done within the fisheries in particular to curb the brutal exploitation of thousands of vulnerable migrants.”
Follow Sarah Hucal on Twitter: @SarahHucal