US trafficking report credits Thailand but progress mixed

FILE - In this Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, file photo, Rohingya Muslim women, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, stretch their arms out to collect sanitary products distributed by aid agencies near Balukhali refugee camp, Bangladesh. Thailand's military government is praising the U.S. State Department's decision to upgrade the country in its annual report on efforts to fight human trafficking. (AP Photo/Dar Yasin, File)

BANGKOK — Thailand's military government praised the U.S. State Department's decision to upgrade the country in its annual report on efforts to fight human trafficking, even as an advocacy group warned that the move was premature.

The Trafficking in Persons annual report cited progress but also problems across the region, especially weak enforcement of protections against trafficking and slave and child labor.

The report released Thursday raised Thailand from a watchlist to tier 2, the second-highest ranking. Neighboring Malaysia fell from tier 2 on the watchlist. Hong Kong, China and Singapore were faulted for inadequate efforts to prevent sex trafficking and forced labor.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said Friday he was grateful for the improved assessment as it "reflects the determination and sincere intentions of the Thai government and our continued hard-work to tackle the issue of human trafficking."

Thailand has faced global scrutiny for the use of slave labor on fishing vessels and for being a transit hub for traffickers from nearby nations. The State Department report cited the government's convictions of traffickers and complicit officials, including 11 involved in the trafficking of Myanmar's Rohingya migrants.

Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, said although Thailand had made some progress, the upgrade came too soon, "potentially releasing the pressure on the Thai government at a time when we are still waiting for them to take concrete actions to protect migrant workers."

She said that migrant workers who power Thai export production do not have the legal right to organize and bargain collectively for better working conditions, which makes them afraid to speak out. "It's impossible to stop human trafficking in such a context," she said.

"Instead of being treated as the victims they are, trafficking survivors who report problems risk punishment for not having proper documentation," the group said, citing a recent report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and Thailand Institute of Justice saying the workers may even face detention until the conclusion of their legal proceedings.

In February, hearings began for 14 Burmese workers in Thailand who escaped from a Thammakaset poultry chicken farm in Lopburi province, where they had worked 20 hours a day for nearly five years, the group said. Rather than receiving compensation after their escape from forced labor, the workers face criminal defamation charges from the owners, and could be fined or imprisoned for speaking about their experiences.

Myanmar was downgraded from the watchlist to the report's lowest ranking, tier 3, primarily for trafficking and other abuses of its ethnic minorities. The report said officials and government-backed militias were increasingly recruiting and using children as soldiers in ethnic areas long affected by civil conflict.

The report also cited a trend toward forcing Burmese women into marriages in China. Children of the Rohingya minority are being kidnapped and sold into forced marriages in Indonesia, India and Malaysia, it said.

North Korea has remained at the report's lowest ranking, tier 3, for years due to its use of forced labor and state-sponsored human trafficking and "negligible" anti-trafficking efforts. The report said the many North Korean refugees living in China are vulnerable to traffickers who force women into prostitution, forced marriages and domestic service or other labor.

But even in Japan, a wealthy, democratic nation listed as a tier 1 country, young women living in poverty are forced into prostitution by organized criminal networks that sometimes entrap them with promises of well-paid work as models or actors, the report said. Affluent Singapore, likewise, is a hub for sex trafficking and forced labor, facilitated by visa laws that make migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation by their employers and recruitment agencies, it said.

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