Commentary: Is trafficking inevitable?

Ali Fowle

Jul 11, 2008 (DVB), Thailand’s new anti-trafficking law aims to help put an end to human trafficking in the country. But without a migration policy that allows legal or low-cost movement, is this addressing the real problem?

Tackling trafficking

At the beginning of June the Thai parliament introduced a new trafficking act that broadens the definition of human trafficking and strengthens protection for victims.

These changes are an undeniable improvement on Thailand’s previous trafficking act, which failed to acknowledge men as potential victims.

However, the new law also ignores some of the glaring issues that are vital in tackling trafficking from Burma.

The International Labour Organisation believes that the new trafficking law offers positive advances in the protection it offers victims.

"The new law is no doubt quite effective in the protection of trafficking victims, it helps all the people involved and the operational guidelines are clear," said Suvajee Good, an ILO specialist on the trafficking of children.

She added that the law gives more people power to act against traffickers, empowering all officials to help victims of trafficking.

However, some see this as one of the negative aspects of the new laws. They will have to be enforced by the notoriously corrupt Thai police force – consistently reported to be susceptible to bribery and often directly involved in smuggling illegal immigrants themselves.

Jackie Pollock from MAP Foundation thinks that more should be done to protect the rights of all people migrating and more protection should be in place for migrants who have been exploited, abused, held captive, or trafficked.

"At the moment, the only protection available is through the anti-trafficking law. This protection itself is very limited, but also it also excludes many migrants who desperately need protection because criminal acts have been committed against them," said Pollock.

She cites the example of 54 Burmese migrants who died while being transported in a container in Ranong. Once the survivors were deemed not to be victims of trafficking, any protection they had been given was taken away.

"Only while they make the case against the trafficker is the victim protected, and then when the case is finished they are sent home," Pollock explained.

Sending migrants who have left Burma back home may mean returning them to a situation where they are persecuted, starving or even in direct danger from the dictatorial rule of the military government. Some will have spent any money they have paying the trafficker to help them escape these hardships and may end up in a far worse situation than before.

"Their country of origin needs to be taken into account; people don’t want to go back. Within the law, they should be allowed to apply for asylum," said Pollock.

In order to properly address these problems, perhaps more attention should be paid to the individual needs of the victims rather than the law surrounding the perpetrators.

"The trouble with trafficking laws is that they are about international crime, not about human rights," said Pollock.

Necessary reaction

The Thai government needs to look at trafficking not only as a crime but as a necessary reaction to circumstances in both Burma and Thailand. Adults are trafficked from Burma to Thailand because they need to leave, and in Thailand there is a need for workers.

This problematic situation needs to be addressed by creating a migration policy that will make movement legally possible.

Jackie Pollock feels the problems are clear.

"The basic problem is that Burma doesn’t have an exit programme whatsoever," she says.

An economic migrant from Burma is unable to seek asylum as a refugee and cannot migrate to another country through legitimate, safe and normal methods.

"There’s no facilitation of migration from Burma, so everyone who enters Thailand to work enters illegally," said Pollock.

More than forty years of military rule and economic mismanagement has crippled Burma’s economy, and the actions of the regime have transformed Burma from an affluent country to one of the most impoverished nations in the world.

Many people capable of work are driven out of the country by starvation due to lack of employment opportunities or having been forced into unpaid labour. With more than half the population below the poverty line, many migrants leave Burma illegally to find work in other countries in the hope of sending some money home to their families.

Once inside the country there are opportunities to register as a migrant worker, but of the alleged 2 million migrants working in Thailand, only a quarter are registered.

"One of the reasons that Thailand does not allow incoming migrants to register immediately on entry to Thailand may be that they are afraid that this will encourage more migrants to leave Burma and come to Thailand," said Pollock.

"In reality, migrants have little choice but to leave Burma in order to survive."

Obstacles to legal migration

Difficulties with registration, language barriers, desperation and manipulative employers mean that many migrants entering Thailand are led straight into exploitation. Unregistered illegal migrants are denied legal rights by current Thai law, and are therefore left without protection.

Often, having been promised or expecting legitimate work, migrants are forced to work in exploitative conditions or sold into the sex trade.

The fear of arrest and deportation drives many people to rely on the help and advice of "carriers" who transport them into Thailand without being reprimanded by authorities.

The ILO's Suvajee Good thinks it is insufficient education that causes these problems.

"A lot of the people who come from Burma will have no information on migration policy," said Suvajee.

"They don’t know what is available to get into Thailand, they don’t speak the language and so they find a ‘guide’ to take them in. They don’t know they are breaking the law," she said.

The situation in both countries and the lack of communication surrounding it means that trafficking is unlikely to diminish in the near future if migration laws don’t change.

People are left with no choice but to become migrants working in illicit circumstances, where they are exploited and their human rights are abused.

Vulnerable targets

The position of desperation that Burmese migrants are in makes them vulnerable targets for traffickers. The offer of help to leave Burma and a job at the other end is simply too good to refuse, despite the risks.

Since the cyclone, even more people have been trying to leave Burma from the affected areas. Traffickers have allegedly posed as aid workers and lured people into Thailand with promises of aid.

The government, however, has stepped up its actions on trafficking of late, and border police recently rescued more than 80 women and children from human traffickers.

In September 2005 Burma also introduced a law against human trafficking which carries strict penalties for the perpetrators.

More recently the junta has urged members of the public to report any evidence of human trafficking, which will hopefully also make potential victims more aware of the risks.

David Mathieson, Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch, said the SPDC "sees trafficking as an internationally prominent issue that can get them some kudos".

Mathieson further commented that although these efforts may be partly for PR, they are also partly genuine efforts on behalf of the government to make a change.

"It is important to acknowledge that some efforts have been made and that some positive things have come out of it," he said.

However, many of these efforts are futile given regular allegations that local Burmese authorities are involved in human smuggling and the absence of laws that are properly enforced in Burma.

"The problem is you cannot have an effective anti trafficking regime without a functioning rational legal system," said Mathieson.

Burma has laws against trafficking but its other policies continue to treat people in a way that forces them to migrate in an act of desperation despite the risks associated with leaving the country illegally.

Following April's tragedy in which 54 Burmese migrants died of suffocation while being transported illegally, Thailand called for the Burmese government to cooperate and sign a joint agreement on the Cooperation to Combat Trafficking in Persons. The Burmese authorities declined to do so.

Such a Memorandum of Understanding to tackle human trafficking could set a framework for cooperation to help the two countries address the issues that trafficking raises together.

Addressing the causes

However, while Thailand concentrates on trafficking laws, it is neglecting to address many of the problems that lead to trafficking in the first place.

Thailand’s constructive engagement policy means that it is reluctant to criticise the Burmese regime. Thailand also benefits from trading with Burma and directly supports the Burmese government through this trade.

Despite the fact that the Thai economy depends hugely on the cheap labour that Burmese migrants supply, over the past two years the Thai government has increased restrictions on and decreased funding for migrant workers.

The number of migrants crossing the Thai-Burma border every day is got getting any smaller. People continue to leave due to extreme poverty, fighting and repression and these people need to be protected.

As long as people are desperate to leave Burma and Thailand is in need of cheap labour, Burmese migrants will continue to leave Burma illegally. Changing the trafficking law will not solve these undeniable problems.

If Burma and Thailand hope to make even a dent in the number of Burmese migrants being exploited, misled and trafficked, they need to accommodate for the huge numbers of people forced to leave their homeland and establish legal, safe and controlled methods to allow them to enter and work in Thailand.

Addressing the issues surrounding migration will in turn address the horror of people trafficking.

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