The United States has waived sanctions against Thailand that could have been imposed as a result of the country’s insufficient efforts to combat human trafficking.
Thailand, which is home to an estimated two to three million migrant labourers, most of them from Burma, was recently downgraded in the US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.
Thailand was listed as a “Tier 3” country, the lowest rank, indicating that the government has not met minimum anti-trafficking standards and could face restrictions on non-humanitarian and non-trade-related assistance.
US President Barack Obama is, however, authorised “to waive the restrictions if he determines that doing so would promote the purposes of the TVPA [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] or is otherwise in the US national interest”, according to a spokesperson for the US Embassy in Bangkok.
The 2014 TIP report identified Thailand as “a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking”. The report said that foreign migrants, ethnic minorities and stateless persons are most vulnerable to human trafficking, many ending up in exploitative jobs in the seafood industry or the sex trade.
Also of concern were continued reports that Thai officials abetted the smuggling of stateless Rohingya Muslims from western Burma and Bangladesh. The number of stateless Muslim asylum seekers traversing Thai waters en route to Malaysia or Indonesia has reached alarming new heights in recent years, prompting urgent warnings from the UN and rights advocates.
Malaysia, which borders southern Thailand and was also designated as a Tier 3 country, was likewise granted a presidential waiver on TIP-related restrictions.
Since 2011, Thailand has idled on the State Department’s “Tier 2 Watchlist”, which means that the country has a significant number of severe cases of trafficking but is making efforts to become TVPA compliant.
The TVPA requires that Tier 2 Watchlist countries demonstrate efforts to improve or be downgraded to Tier 3, which subjects them to restrictions. The act allows, however, for two consecutive waivers for downgrade.
Thailand did not show adequate improvement during 2012 and 2013 assessments, but was granted the consecutive waivers based on a written plan to achieve compliance. Failure to do so resulted in their demotion in June.
“A Tier 3 ranking indicates that serious and sustained efforts are needed, and is intended to motivate governments to implement swift action,” the Embassy spokesperson told DVB on Saturday, adding that “We [the State department] look forward to working with the Thai government to implement these recommendations.”
While the State Department, which is among the most active anti-trafficking bodies in the world, has demonstrated a harsh stance towards Thailand’s trafficking record, the decision not to impose sanctions revealed some flexibility in terms of policy.
“Actually it’s not that surprising,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, “since the US frequently waives TIP-related sanctions against countries, especially ones that it shares historically close relations with.”
Obama also waived sanctions for Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Yemen, all of which share Thailand’s disposition as trafficking hubs.
Robertson warned that while waiving the sanctions may strike some as a soft move, “no one should make the mistake of thinking that this diminishes the seriousness of the TIP problem in Thailand”, adding that the US was and remains “strongly critical” of Thailand’s as yet unconvincing efforts.
“The question is when, if ever, Thai officials are going to finally figure out that more anti-trafficking posters at the airport, and big seminars with public pronouncements of ‘commitment’, are not convincing anyone that Thailand is serious about systematically addressing the trafficking problem,” he said.
Thailand is currently subject to some economic sanctions by the US as a result of the coup that installed a military government on 22 May. The Embassy said that US agencies still fund numerous anti-trafficking programmes in Thailand which remain unaffected.