Thailand as a regional haven for human trafficking

The Nation, 12 May 2014

Thai authorities were perplexed by the Turkic-looking undocumented visitors, who were detained in Songkhla, Chiang Rai and along the Thai-Cambodian border. Last year, 88 were detained at Bangkok’s immigration office. Just a few days ago a dozen more were apprehended.

Various reports identified them as Uighur Muslims originating from Xinjiang, China. They had been smuggled overland to northern Thailand through a labyrinth of networks arranged by international traffickers. From Kunming, they were transported to the borders with Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, attempting to enter Thailand. All would have a rendezvous in Songkhla, southern Thailand, before their journey would have ended with a border crossing to Malaysia, from where they hoped to go to Turkey.

The recent influx of Uighurs to Thailand has been due to two unrelated developments. The exodus to Thailand is a new one, which comes about due to tighter border administration among members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisations, especially those bordering China such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which literally sealed off the traditional trafficking route.

Secondly, after the Malaysia Airline MH370 tragedy and suspicion of strangers, the Malaysian government has cracked down on foreign Muslim refugees, forcing them to flee into Thailand.

Among human traffickers, Thailand is known as a haven due to its easy access, the weak law enforcement and border controls. Authorities working in collusion with traffickers near and far ensure that their victims’ illegal entries are carried out in systematic ways in various parts of Thailand. Prior to their arrival in the Kingdom, transit countries normally turned a blind eye to avoid future complications of having to deal with these asylum-seekers.

Those who have shown up in Songkhla, according to local officials, comprised women and children – each family has parents along with three-four children. Diplomats from the Turkey’s and China’s embassies recently met and talked with them, trying to determine their backgrounds. At the moment, they are under the care of the Thai government, pending confirmation of their identities. Thailand has sought assistance from the International Organisation of Migration, which has been helping the Rohingya refugees stranded here.

Influx of the Uighur

Muslims and other displaced persons in the South cannot be viewed in isolation because some have crossed over from Malaysia, where the demand for labour is very high. Human traffickers have used the porous Thai-Malaysian border to repatriate undocumented migrant workers from Myanmar, Bangladesh and Central Asia to the Thai border. Once they are found inside Thailand, they continue to be subject to exploitation by local officials and international human smugglers. Only the asylum seekers from North Korea receive better treatment. Once they arrived at the Thai border in Chiangsaen, Chiang Rai, they would immediately come under the care and protection of the South Korean government, which would accept their resettlement. As the Uighur Muslims continue to make their way to Thailand, the battle with human traffickers has taken a new twist. The US government will issue its annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) in June with an assessment of the country’s efforts to fight against human trafficking, especially involving the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

Last week, major human rights and refugee organisations urged Washington to punish Bangkok for not doing enough to combat human trafficking. Worse, they cited evidence of complicity between local authorities and traffickers.

Currently, Thailand belongs to the “Tier 2” watch list since the past four years. The pending report could have a devastating outcome if it is downgraded to Tier 3, with possible sanctions from the US government. In past years, Thai authorities have strengthened law enforcement and pursued trafficking cases vigorously.

Last year alone a total of 483 persons were prosecuted out of 386 trafficking cases, compared to 64 persons out of 38 cases in 2010. To Thailand’s critics, it was too little too late.In addition, the ongoing domestic political turmoil rubs salt into the wounds because the Thai government has to cope with multiple external pressures in taking care of thenew arrivals and pressure for their forced repatriation.

However, the plight of the Rohingya dominates the discourse on human trafficking internationally for the time being. Besides Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia also suffer greatly from the influx of Muslim asylum seekers. Attempts to forge a regional approach with Myanmar and Bangladesh have failed.

Since the 1970s Thailand has had a long history of settling nearly 3 million refugees and displaced persons from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Now it hosts more than 4 million migrant workers, most of them illegal. Even though Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it cooperated with various UN agencies and foreign countries in those difficult decades. The time has now come for Thailand to sign the convention. Concerned Thai authorities, in particular the Ministry of Interior, are still hung up with a myth that such a deal would increase the influx of refugees.

The truth is displaced persons and refugees will continue to come to Thailand nonetheless. International criticism often targets Thailand for the unhealthy conditions and inhuman exploitation that illegal immigrants face, ignoring the refugee-producing countries.

Thailand, like Pakistan and other developing countries, has to host large numbers of refugees relative to its economic base. The 1951 convention enables UN agencies and foreign governments to help defray unfair criticism and to determine the status of refugees and assist in repatriation and settlement. As of now, with increased asylum-seeker arrivals, Thailand should take more responsibility for determining the status of refugees.