Category Archives: Safe Migration

Special Report: Flaws found in Thailand’s human-trafficking crackdown, Reuters

After a two-hour trek through swamp and jungle, Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot halts in a trash-strewn clearing near Thailand’s remote border with Malaysia.

“This is it,” he says, surveying the remains of a deserted camp on a hillside pressed flat by the weight of human bodies.

Just weeks before, says Thatchai, hundreds of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar were held captive here by one of the shadowy gangs who have turned southern Thailand into a human-trafficking superhighway.

With Thatchai’s help, Thailand is scrambling to show it is combating the problem. It aims to avoid a downgrade in an influential U.S. State Department annual report that ranks countries on their anti-trafficking efforts.

But a Reuters examination of that effort exposes flaws in how Thailand defines human trafficking, exemplified by its failure to report the lucrative trafficking of thousands of Rohingya confirmed in Reuters investigations published in July and December.

In March, Thailand submitted a 78-page report on its trafficking record for 2013 to the State Department. Thai officials provided a copy to Reuters. In the report, Thailand includes no Rohingya in its tally of trafficked persons.

“We have not found that the Rohingya are victims of human trafficking,” the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “In essence, the Rohingya question is an issue of human smuggling.”

The distinction between smuggling and trafficking is critical to Thailand’s assertion. Smuggling, done with the consent of those involved, differs from trafficking, the business of trapping people by force or deception into labor or prostitution.

A two-part Reuters investigation in three countries, based on interviews with people smugglers, human traffickers and Rohingya who survived boat voyages from Myanmar, last year showed how the treatment of Rohingya often constituted trafficking. Reporters found that hundreds were held against their will in brutal trafficking camps in the Thai wilderness.

A record 40,000 Rohingya passed through the camps in 2013, according to Chris Lewa, director of Arakan Project, a humanitarian group.

The Rohingya’s accelerating exodus is a sign of Muslim desperation in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, also known as Burma. Ethnic and religious tensions simmered during 49 years of military rule. But under the reformist government that took power in March 2011, Myanmar has endured its worst communal bloodshed in generations.

After arriving by boat to Thailand, criminal networks transport Rohingya mainly into neighboring Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country viewed by Rohingya as a haven from persecution. Many are held by guards with guns and beaten until they produce money for passage across the Thai border, usually about $2,000 each – a huge sum for one of the world’s most impoverished peoples.

Thailand faces an automatic downgrade to Tier 3, the lowest rank in the U.S. government’s Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report, unless it makes “significant efforts” to improve its record, according to the State Department. The agency is expected to release its findings in June.

“GRIEVOUS RIGHTS ABUSES”

A Tier 3 designation would put the Southeast Asian country alongside North Korea and the Central African Republic as the world’s worst centers of human trafficking, and would expose Thailand to U.S. sanctions.

If Thailand is downgraded, the United States, in practice, is unlikely to sanction the country, one of its oldest treaty allies in Asia. But to be downgraded would be a major embarrassment to Thailand, which is now lobbying hard for a non-permanent position on the United Nations Security Council.

Reuters asked New York-based Human Rights Watch to review the report that Thailand recently submitted to the State Department. The watchdog group, which monitors trafficking and other abuses globally, said it was concerned that two-thirds of the trafficking victims cited in the report were Thai nationals.

“Any examination of trafficking in Thailand shows that migrants from neighboring countries are the ones most trafficked,” said Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director. “Yet Thailand’s identification statistics show far more Thais than migrants are found as victims.”

He added that the numbers were also flawed due to the absence of Rohingya among the list of trafficking victims. Thailand failed to recognize “the grievous rights abuses the Rohingya suffer in these jungle camps, and the fundamental failures of the Thai government to do much about it.”

The State Department said it is examining Thailand’s submission. “We have received the information from the Thai government, and it is currently under review,” Ambassador at-Large Luis CdeBaca of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons said in a statement to Reuters.

“PLIGHT OF THE ROHINGYA”

The next TIP Report will appraise Thailand’s anti-trafficking efforts in 2013.

That year ended with the State Department and the United Nations calling for investigations into the findings of a December 5 report by Reuters. That article uncovered a secret Thai policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thailand’s immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea.

Thailand made “significant progress” in combating human trafficking in 2013, said its foreign ministry, citing data included in the recent 78-page report Bangkok submitted to the State Department.

According to the Thai report, Thailand convicted 225 people for human trafficking in 2013, compared to 49 people in 2012. (According to the State Department, Thailand convicted only 10 people in 2012.)

The report said Thailand identified 1,020 trafficking victims in 2013, compared to 592 in 2012, and almost doubled the government’s anti-trafficking budget to 235 million baht ($7.3 million).

It identified victims by nationality, counting 141 people from Myanmar among the victims. But none were Rohingya, who are mostly stateless. The Myanmar government calls the Rohingya illegal “Bengali” migrants from Bangladesh. Most of the 1.1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State are denied citizenship.

In January 2013, said the Thai report, more than 400 Rohingya illegal migrants were found in rubber plantations near the Thai-Malay border in Thailand’s Songkhla province. Seven Thai suspects were arrested and charged with smuggling and harboring of illegal migrants, and were later convicted.

The Thai report describes this group of Rohingya as being smuggled, not trafficked.

However, the Reuters article in December documented a clandestine Thai policy to remove those Rohingya from immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers and smugglers waiting at sea. Many Rohingya were then ferried back to brutal trafficking camps in Thailand, where some died.

The official Thai report said the government “has taken every effort to suppress the smuggling of Rohingyas over the years and to reduce the risk of Rohingyas being exploited by transnational trafficking syndicates.”

“The plight of the Rohingyas who left their homeland is essentially one of people smuggling, not one that is typical of human trafficking,” said the report.

Pongthep Thepkanjana, the caretaker deputy prime minister, said he would not speculate on whether Thailand’s efforts were enough for an upgrade on the U.S. trafficking rankings.

“We don’t do this just to satisfy the United States,” Pongthep, who chairs Thailand’s national committee to implement anti-trafficking policy, told Reuters. “We do this because trafficking in persons is a bad thing.”

HUNTSVILLE, THAILAND

The anti-trafficking efforts of Police Major General Thatchai are part of that undertaking.

At the abandoned camp he recently examined, Thatchai said scores of Rohingya were beaten until relatives agreed to pay for their release and onward passage to Malaysia. Other Rohingya have died of abuse or disease in nearby trafficking camps whose locations were revealed by the December 5 Reuters report.

Thatchai took charge of the region’s anti-trafficking efforts in October. He has vowed to shut the trafficking camps, break up the gangs and jail their leaders.

“They torture, they extort, they kill,” said Thatchai, 46, who speaks in an American accent picked up while earning a doctorate in criminal justice in Texas. “It’s too much, isn’t it?”

His campaign has freed nearly 900 people from camps and other trafficking sites and unearthed new detail about criminal syndicates in southern Thailand.

Well-oiled Rohingya-smuggling networks are now being used to transport other nationalities in large numbers, said Thatchai. He said he has identified at least six smuggling syndicates in southern Thailand, all run by Thai Muslims.

This year, along with hundreds of Rohingya, he has also detained about 200 illegal migrants from Bangladesh, as well as nearly 300 people claiming to be Turks but believed to be Uighur Muslims from China’s restive province of Xinjiang.

Like officials in Bangkok, Thatchai generally characterized the transporting of Rohingya through Thailand as human smuggling, not human trafficking.

At the same time, he said his aim was to disrupt the camps through raids and use testimony from victims to unravel the networks. He hopes to gather enough evidence to convict southern Thailand’s two main people-smuggling kingpins on human trafficking charges.

One target lived in Ranong, a Thai port city overlooking Thailand’s maritime border with Myanmar. This suspect, Thatchai said, sells Rohingya to the other syndicates. They then resell the Rohingya at marked-up prices to Thai fishing boats, where bonded or slave labor is common, or take them to camps to beat more money from them – usually a sum equivalent to about $2,000.

The Ranong kingpin made about 10 million baht ($310,000) a month this way, alleged Thatchai, and owned dozens of pick-up trucks to move his human cargo.

“THERE WAS TORTURE”

The second suspect was a leader of a syndicate in the province of Satun. That gang is believed to operate a string of camps along the province’s border with Malaysia – including the abandoned camp Reuters visited with Thatchai on March 27.

At least 400 Rohingya, including many women and children, were held at that camp for up to a month, said Thatchai. The Rohingya were guarded by armed men and fed two meals of instant noodles a day.

“Today we have proved that what the victim said is true,” Thatchai said after the site visit. “There was a camp. There was torture and kidnapping.”

But Thatchai also said he thinks no amount of raids and arrests in Thailand will staunch the flow of Rohingya out of Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Deadly clashes between Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists erupted in Buddhist-majority Myanmar in 2012, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless, most of them Rohingya.

Since then, about 80,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar by boat, according to the Arakan Project.

More look set to follow, after attacks by ethnic Rakhine mobs in late March forced foreign aid workers to evacuate the state capital of Sittwe. This has jeopardized the delivery of food and water to tens of thousands of Rohingya.

By Andrew R.C. Marshall and Amy Sawitta Lefevre. Additional reporting by Jason Szep in Washington. Editing by Jason Szep, Bill Tarrant and Michael Williams, Reuters.

Published on 10 April 2014.

Labor Ministry to Inspect Migrant Worker Recruitment Agencies, Cambodia Daily

The government today will begin strict inspections of agencies that recruit workers to send overseas, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng said Tuesday.

The labor minister has previously threatened to suspend or revoke the licenses of agencies that do not comply with labor laws.

Speaking at a workshop designed to school the nation’s 43 registered labor recruitment agencies on laws that govern their firms, Mr. Sam Heng warned the agencies to follow closely eight new prakas, or ministerial directives, which came into effect late last year.

“I recommend to each agency, you must be well prepared, you must make your house stable, you must be a real agency, a real entity. It is not a joke…the government and ministry will hold you responsible if you cheat the workers,” Mr. Sam Heng said.

He said that after two warnings, “if the problems are not fixed we will move to the cancellation of licenses.”

The legislation, called Sending Workers Abroad Through Private Recruitment Agencies, is designed to hold recruitment agencies accountable for the training and treatment of migrant workers and to introduce a complaint mechanism for workers to use while living overseas.

In the past, migrant workers have been seduced by dishonest brokers with false promises and then left at the mercy of employers once they arrive at their overseas destinations. In 2011, following a raft of reports of serious abuses by employers in Malaysia, Prime Minister Hun Sen banned the sending of domestic workers there.

“Previously, some agencies just rent two apartments and put 60 or 70 workers inside—it’s not a training center but a detention center,” Mr. Sam Heng said. “We will not let it happen again.”

Rim Khleang, national project coordinator for the International Labor Organization (ILO), which helped draft the new directives, said Tuesday that the ILO has no role in inspections.

“The checklist for the inspections is not clear to us, but I understand that they will be in line with exactly what is in the prakas,” Mr. Khleang said. He referred further questions to Max Tunon, the ILO’s senior project coordinator, who could not be reached.

The Labor Ministry also declined to give further insight into exactly what aspects of recruitment agencies will be scrutinized during government inspections.

Ravi Chandran, manager of Unicorn, a Malaysian-owned recruitment agency, said he hopes the current ban on sending Cambodian maids to Malaysia will be lifted. He expressed doubt that the directives will properly ensure workers’ rights.

“We are a legitimate company that takes the straight line and treats workers appropriately but we always end up the loser,” Mr. Chandran said.

“As we know, in Cambodia, everything can be bought. None of the local agencies will fail the inspection—they know how to do business.”

By Matt Blomberg, Cambodia Daily

Published on 26 March 2014

 

Thai Police Rescue Hundreds of Rohingya in Raid on Suspected Traffickers’ Camp, The Irrawaddy

BANGKOK — Thai police have rescued hundreds of Rohingya Muslims from a remote camp in a raid prompted by a Reuters investigation into human trafficking, police officials said on Monday.

Police detained 531 men, women and children in Sunday’s raid at a camp near the town of Sadao in the southern province of Songkhla, on a well-established route for human smugglers near Thailand’s border with Malaysia. It was the first raid on illegal Rohingya smuggling camps since Jan. 9, 2013.

The police said they were following up on a Dec. 5 Reuters report that Rohingya were held hostage in camps hidden near the border with Malaysia until relatives pay ransoms to release them. Some were beaten and killed.

The Rohingya are mostly stateless Muslims from Burma. Deadly clashes between Rohingya and ethnic Arakanese Buddhists erupted in Buddhist-majority Burma last year, making 140,000 people homeless, most of them Rohingya.

Since then, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled from Burma by boat and many arrive off southwest Thailand.

The United Nations and the United States called for an investigation into the Reuters report, based on a two months of research in three countries, that revealed a clandestine policy to remove Rohingya refugees from Thai immigration detention centers and deliver them to human traffickers waiting at sea.

“After Reuters gave us information, we ordered an investigation into the camps,” said Chatchawan Suksomjit, deputy national police chief. He said they captured three suspected ringleaders at the camp, all of them Thai males.

Reuters gave the Thai authorities coordinates to one camp near Sadao which was empty by the time they arrived, but police found another camp nearby.

“From the Reuters report, we received a clue that it was in Kao Roop Chang [village]. But the camp was already moved from there when we found it. We found only an empty camp there. So we investigated more until we found the new camp,” said Colonel Kan Tammakasem, superintendent of immigration in Songkhla.

The plight of the Rohingya illustrates the limits to Burma’s wave of democratic reforms since military rule ended in March 2011. Inside Burma, they face apartheid-like conditions and, according to the United Nations, many forms of “persecution, discrimination and exploitation.”

US Scrutiny

Police are trying to identify the origins of those detained after the raid, not all of whom were Rohingya, said Chatchawan. “We are interviewing all of them to see if they are victims of human trafficking,” he said.

They are being kept at an immigration detention center in Songkhla.

“We have to interview them and proceed according to Thai immigration laws,” he said. “It will depend on whether they want to go back. If they are willing we will send them back as we have done before.”

Last year, Thailand implemented a secretive policy to deport the Rohingya.

These deportations delivered many Rohingya back into the hands of smuggling networks and human traffickers, who in some cases ferried them back to Thailand’s secret border camps, reported Reuters.

The raid comes as the US State Department is finalizing its research for its next Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report, due in June, which ranks countries on their counter-trafficking performance.

Thailand is Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and a close US ally, but has a poor record in fighting trafficking and faces a possible downgrade to the report’s lowest rank, putting it at risk of US sanctions and potentially placing it on a par with North Korea and Iran.

Nine people were arrested in Thailand in relation to Rohingya smuggling in 2013, including two government officials, according to police data, but none of the arrests has led to convictions.

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Andrew R. C. Marshall, Reuters

Published on 27 January 2014

Impoverished Cambodians for Sale, Inter Press Service

PHNOM PENH, Jan 24 2014 (IPS) – Many Cambodian women arrive in South Korea or China for marriage, only to find themselves being chosen as mistresses, say labour rights activists. While young Cambodian men, who travel to Thailand to work on fishing boats, often fall prey to drug abuse.

Loss of land, debt, poor pay and high prices of petrol and electricity are pushing youths from poverty-stricken Cambodia to foreign lands – sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Miserable working conditions in the garment sector have only worsened the labour trafficking scenario.

Tola Moeun, head of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), said rural farmers comprise 80 percent of Cambodia’s population, but they are increasingly in debt due to high-interest loans. As a result, youth leave home in search of work.

He also cited the example of Cambodia’s garment industry, saying the prospect of being a garment worker is so terrible that often women will do anything to escape this fate.

“Women garment workers often choose to go to South Korea to escape the situation,” Tola told IPS.

CLEC has received several calls from families whose daughters were experiencing troubled “marriages” to Chinese and South Korean men that turned out to be sham marriages.

Tola said families accept money from marriage brokers without understanding the situation. The truth emerges when the women arrive in South Korea, only to be lined up in a room for the “husband” to choose from.

“I went to South Korea in 2011. It was explained to me that South Korean wives are not worried about sex workers because the husband takes a mistress. So he chooses a Cambodian girl to ‘marry’,” he said.

“In China, there is a shortage of women in the countryside. The man wants a wife to work for him without pay, so she becomes not only a labour slave but also a sex slave,” Tola said.

He concedes, however, that all international marriages are not shams.

A 24-year-old woman in Phnom Penh told IPS she knew of many successful relationships through marriage brokers. But she contacted IPS when a 30-year-old woman was being aggressively pursued by a marriage broker after she changed her mind about an offer. The broker backed off when CLEC was mentioned.

“A lot of Cambodian girls marry South Korean men. These are real relationships. Really poor people do this. Sometimes the girls come back and are able to build a house for the family and improve their lives.”

Young Cambodian men travel to Thailand to work in the construction sector, on fishing boats or in fish processing factories. This takes place either formally, using a broker for visas, or illegally.

“In case of illegal offers, the recruiter will call and say, ‘Do you want a job?’ The person will then cross the border at night, not using checkpoints, hiding in the back of a truck, lying head to toe with other people and covered with supplies that are being transported,” said Tola.

Brahm Press of the Raks Thai Foundation, an organisation that assists migrant workers, said most problems occur due to work contracts at the Cambodian end.

“As of July 2013, around 8,000 Cambodians were registered in Bangkok – 5,000 men and the rest women – and they were probably all in construction. I have heard that after deductions for recruitment agencies and housing, they come away with less than the 300 baht [10 dollars] a day minimum wage,” Press told IPS.

He said problems usually occur due to misunderstandings about work arrangements and fees or when passports are withheld to ensure that workers pay their recruitment debt.

Recently 13 young Cambodians – 11 men and two women aged between 15 and 23 – entered Thailand with the help of brokers to whom they paid 500 dollars each, said Si Ngoun, the father of one of the youths.

“They were promised a good job with a good salary of 300 baht per day.”

For two months they worked at a rubber band factory, a metal smith factory and, lastly, in the construction sector, which is where their troubles began.

“We were paid very little, about 120 baht [four dollars] per day. We didn’t want to work any more because we were too hungry,” 20-year-old Si Pesith, one of the workers, told IPS.

Tola said the workers asked for food and protested but the employer had them jailed as illegal workers. Usually detention lasts six to nine months, but Cambodian Ambassador You Ay intervened and they were sent home within a week.

IPS spoke with Pesith after he was repatriated. “If we compare work in Thailand with that in Cambodia, it is not much different,” he said.

Thai fishing boats have been flagged by the U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report as potential labour trafficking scams for Cambodian migrants.

Press said conditions on fishing boats are notoriously difficult to monitor. Work there has been linked to drug use as labourers try to get through work shifts that can last up to 20 hours.

“When migrants, first Burmese and then Cambodians, were prominently replacing Thais on the boats, amphetamines were becoming the rage,” he said.

“First there was Ya-Ma (horse drug), which was milder than the current Ya-Ba, but no less addictive. During the last decade there were anecdotal reports, first of migrants on fishing boats voluntarily taking Ya-Ma, then stories of captains putting Ya-Ba in the drinking water.” Press, however, said such stories had become less frequent.

Eliot Albers, executive director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD), said criminalisation of drug use makes it harder to assist users, especially migrants.

“Poverty and labour abuse worsen people’s relationship with drugs. They suffer from labour abuse and drugs help them get through the day,” Albers told IPS.

Migrant workers lack union representation, making them especially vulnerable to abuse. If they are formal workers, the process of migration is expensive (up to 700 dollars each), requiring a recruiter and debt. If they are informal, it is cheaper. But they risk detention and deportation by Thai police if they complain about the working conditions.

Despite these problems, repatriated workers often leave Cambodia again.

By Michelle Tolson, Inter Press Service

Published on 24 January 2o14

Thai police find 13 bodies believed to be illegal Myanmar migrants from boat lost at sea, Washington Post

BANGKOK — Thai police said Sunday that the bodies of 13 people believed to be migrants from Myanmar seeking work have been found off southern Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast.

Lt. Col. Nirat Chuayjit said that marine police in Ranong province, 580 kilometers (360 miles) south of Bangkok, had recovered the bodies of 12 men and one woman, whom they believe were on a boat that broke up in bad weather Wednesday as they sought to travel illegally to Thailand.

Thailand hosts hundreds of thousands of migrants from neighboring Myanmar who are willing to take menial jobs at low pay. They can register to work legally under strict conditions, but many also labor illegally.

Nirat said it was unknown how many people from the boat might be missing or survived, but that such boats normally carry about 30 people. Survivors would be unlikely to contact Thai authorities for fear of the legal consequences of trying to enter the country illegally, he said.

It is common for migrant workers to try to sneak into Thailand during the rainy season, because the marine police cannot conduct regular patrols in stormy weather, Nirat said.

By Associated Press

Published on 13 October 2013

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