Category Archives: Safe Migration

53 Migrants Detained After Thai Trafficking Bust

RANGOON — Scores of refugees are in detention after being rescued by Thailand’s anti-human trafficking police from a rubber plantation just north of Phuket in Thailand’s Phang Nga province.

The 53 men were found by police in an early morning raid on Saturday. Two male Thai nationals have been arrested on charges of human trafficking.

Many of the victims were Rohingya Muslims who lived in refugee camps in Bangladesh after fleeing communal violence and other forms of persecution in western Burma’s Arakan State. Some of the victims, however, said that they were from Bangladesh.

The group was reportedly intercepted by human traffickers after setting off by boat to seek jobs in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Htoo Chit, executive director of Thailand-based migrant rights group Foundation for Education and Development, met the trafficking victims in a Phang Nga detention center.

“When I went to meet them,” said Htoo Chit, “some of them showed me their cards from UNHCR [the United Nations refugee agency], which prove that they are from Myanmar [Burma]. They moved to the Bangladesh border because they could stay there as refugees, as they had many difficulties [in Burma].”

The men were taken into police custody at around 4 am on Saturday morning, he said, adding that another group of about 30 refugees were also discovered and detained on the same day.

Thirty-seven people—including an unknown number of women—were detained earlier this month in a similar operation.

Most of the victims will remain in police custody until they can be repatriated, said Htoo Chit, but those who have identified themselves as Rohingya may face longer detention as they are not citizens of either Burma or Bangladesh.

Victims said that they had initially left Bangladesh on a small boat, after being promised jobs in Malaysia by an employment broker. The risky voyage across the Andaman Sea is common this time of year, as the monsoon season winds die down and waters are less volatile.

The journey can be deadly nonetheless; many migrants and refugees die en route as the small, poorly equipped boats frequently capsize or run out of supplies. Those that complete the journey run other risks, such as being intercepted by human traffickers.

Some of the victims detained on Saturday told Htoo Chit that they were transferred from their small boat to a bigger one, which idled in the sea waiting for the refugees to arrive.

“They told me that it took them 19 days to get from Bangladesh to Thailand. They had to stop several times along the way. They spent five days on a small Thai Island, and then they went to the plantation where they were supposed to be taken by car to Malaysia,” he said.

While the dangerous voyage has become increasingly common over the past two years—after communal violence tore apart communities, claimed hundreds of lives and displaced more than 100,000 people—Saturday’s incident had some alarming distinctions.

At least one victim said that he was neither an asylum seeker nor an economic refugee. A man wishing to be referred to simply as Mohamed told Htoo Chit that his hands were bound and he was forced to get on the boat, indicating that some of the victims may have been kidnapped.

Other media reports have cited similar accounts. Agence France-Presse cited an anonymous Thai official saying that, “Some of them were knocked out with anesthetic and taken to the boat, some were tricked … but they did not intend to come to Thailand.”

Htoo Chit described the victims, who still face an indeterminate detention in the crowded Thai facility, as malnourished and weak.

“All of them look very tired, like their bodies have not had enough food,” he said. “They were lying on the floor when we got there.”

More than 140,000 people, mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims, were displaced by several rounds of communal riots that began in Arakan State in June 2012. Most are still living in crowded displacement camps where they are systematically denied access to basic health care, education and other resources. Chronically dire conditions for displaced persons have led many to flee again; some seek asylum in Bangladesh, while many others head south to seek refuge in Malaysia.

The United Nations estimated in June 2014 that more than 86,000 people had attempted the perilous route across the Andaman Sea since June 2012. Newer UN data claims that more than 20,000 have made the trip since the start of 2014 alone.

By: Lawi Weng, The Irrawaddy

Thailand faces U.S. consequences if human trafficking subsists, Las Vegas Review-Journal

AMBON, Indonesia — He was too sick to eat, and Min Min Chan’s chest ached with each breath he sucked. It didn’t matter: The Thai captain warned him to get back on deck and start hauling fish onto the trawler or be tossed overboard. As a 17-year-old slave stuck in the middle of the sea, he knew no one would come looking if he simply vanished.

Less than a month earlier, Chan had left Myanmar for neighboring Thailand, looking for work. Instead, he said a broker tricked and sold him onto the fishing boat for $616. He ended up far away in Indonesian waters before even realizing what was happening.

Tens of thousands of invisible migrants like Chan stream into Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, every year. Many are used as forced labor in various industries, especially on long-haul fishing boats that catch seafood eaten in the U.S. and around the world. Others are dragged into the country’s booming sex industry. Ethnic Rohingya asylum seekers from neighboring Myanmar are also held for ransom in abysmal jungle camps.

Next week, when a U.S. report on human trafficking comes out, Thailand may be punished for allowing that exploitation. The country has been on a U.S. State Department human trafficking watch list for the past four years. Washington warned in last year’s report that without major improvements, it would be dropped to the lowest rung, Tier 3, joining the ranks of North Korea, Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe.

Though Thailand says it is trying to prevent such abuses and punish traffickers, its authorities have been part of the problem. The U.S. has said the involvement of corrupt officials appears to be widespread, from protecting brothels and workplaces to cooperating directly with traffickers.

A downgrade could lead the U.S. to pull back certain forms of foreign support and exchange programs as well as oppose assistance from international financial institutions such as the World Bank. Washington has already cut some assistance to Bangkok following last month’s Thai military coup.

Thailand is paying a U.S. public relations company $51,000 a month to help in its push for better standing. The government issued a progress report for 2013, noting that investigations, prosecutions and the budget for anti-trafficking work all are on the rise.

“We recognize that it’s a very serious, very significant problem, and we’ve been building a legal and bureaucratic framework to try to address these issues,” said Vijavat Isarabhakdi, Thailand’s ambassador to the U.S. “We feel that we have turned a corner and are making great progress in this area.”

At least 38 Thai police were punished last year or are being investigated for alleged involvement in trafficking, but none has stood trial yet. Four companies have been fined, and criminal charges against five others are pending. But the government pulled the licenses of only two of the country’s numerous labor recruitment agencies.

In Geneva on Wednesday, Thailand was the only government in the world to vote against a new U.N. international treaty that combats forced labor by, among other things, strengthening victims’ access to compensation. Several countries abstained.

“Thailand tries to portray itself as the victim while, at the same time, it’s busy taking advantage of everybody it can who’s coming through the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The exploitation of migrants, the trafficking, it comes through Thailand because people know they can pay people in the government and in the police to look the other way.”

————

Chan’s story is a common nightmare. A recruiter showed up in his village in Myanmar, also known as Burma, offering good 15031 to work on a fishing boat in Thailand. Chan said after sneaking across the border by foot, he was sold onto a boat by the broker and told to hide inside to avoid being seen by Thai authorities.

“‘You have to work at least six months. After that, you can go back home,’” Chan said the captain told him. “I decided, ‘I can work for six months on this boat.’”

But after the ship docked 17 days later on eastern Indonesia’s Ambon island, Chan met other Burmese workers who told a very different story: There was no six-month contract and no escape. Now thousands of miles from home, he realized he no longer owned his life — it had become a debt that must be paid.

Ambon, in the Banda Sea, is peppered with churches and pristine dive sites. At the port, deep-sea fishermen in tattered T-shirts and rubber boots form human chains on boats, tossing bag after bag of frozen snapper and other fish into pickup trucks bound for cold storage. Much of it will later be shipped to Thailand for export.

They speak Burmese, Thai and other languages. Their skin is dark from the sun, and some faces look far older than their ropey bodies.

On the cramped boat, Chan said he slept only about three hours a night alongside 17 other men, mostly Burmese, sometimes working on just one meal of rice and fish a day. There was no fresh water for drinking or bathing, only boiled sea water with a briny taste.

In his first month at sea, he got sick and didn’t eat for three days. He was sleeping when the captain threatened him.

“Why are you not working? Why are you taking a rest?” Chan recalled him saying. “Do we have to throw you off into the water?”

Some of Chan’s friends carried him onto the deck, where he was given medicine before getting back to work.

For the next year, he labored, hauling up thousands of kilograms (pounds) of fish as he tried to shake a stubborn cough. He saw land every couple of months, but there was no way to leave the port.

He said he was given occasional packs of cigarettes, noodles and coffee, but he never got paid.

———

Thailand shipped some $7 billion worth of seafood abroad last year, making it the world’s third-largest exporter. Most went to Japan and the U.S., where it ranks as the No. 3 foreign supplier.

The United Nations estimates the industry employs 2 million people, but it still faces a massive worker shortage. Many Thais are unwilling to take the low-paid, dangerous jobs that can require fishermen to be at sea for months or even years at a time.

An estimated 200,000 migrants, mostly from neighboring Myanmar and Cambodia, are laboring on Thai boats, according to the Bangkok-based nonprofit Raks Thai Foundation. Some go voluntarily, but a U.N. survey last year of nearly 600 workers in the fishing industry found that almost none had a signed contract, and about 40 percent had wages cut without explanation. Children were also found on board.

Forced or coerced work is more common in certain sectors, including deep-sea fishing and seafood processing plants where some workers have reported being drugged and kidnapped.

Long-haul fishermen like Chan have it the worst. They are worked around the clock seven days a week with very little food and often no clean water. They risk getting fouled in lines, being swept overboard during storms or losing fingers cleaning fish.

But often the biggest threat is their captain. A 2009 U.N. report found that about six out of 10 migrant workers on Thai fishing boats reported seeing a co-worker killed. Chan faced abuse himself and saw one sick Burmese fisherman die. The captain simply dumped the body overboard.

Thailand’s progress report highlighted increased boat and workplace inspections, but the U.S. has said those do not combat trafficking in an industry where “overall impunity for exploitative labor practices” is seen. The U.S. recommends increased prosecutions of employers involved in human trafficking.

The problem is also rampant in the country’s notorious sex industry. More than three-quarters of trafficking investigations launched last year in Thailand involved sexual exploitation. Thai girls and women were abused along with those from neighboring countries.

Another challenge surrounds the recent influx of Rohingya Muslims. An estimated 75,000 have fled Myanmar since communal violence exploded there two years ago, according to Chris Lewa of the nonprofit Arakan Project. The Buddhist-dominated country considers Rohingya to be noncitizens from Bangladesh, though many were born in Myanmar.

Many Rohingya brought to Thailand are held at rubber plantations or forest camps by armed guards until they can find a way to pay the typical asking price of $2,000 for their release, according to victims and rights groups. Those who get the 15031 often cross the border into Malaysia, where tens of thousands of Rohingya have found refuge. Those who don’t are sometimes sold for sex, forced labor, or they are simply left to die.

The Thai government, however, does not address these asylum seekers as trafficking victims in its report. It said fleeing Rohingya enter Thailand willingly, even though “most of them fall prey to smugglers and illegal middlemen.” However, Vijavat, the Thai ambassador, said some cases are now being treated as trafficking.

Rights groups allege corrupt Thai officials are sometimes involved, including deporting Rohingya straight back into traffickers’ hands.

“I believe we have more good officers than bad ones,” said police Col. Paisith Sungkahapong, director of the government’s Anti-Human Trafficking Center. He said migrants in the country illegally “are pushed back through proper channels. Immigration will contact their counterpart in Myanmar or whichever country, and make sure they return there safely.”

In a letter last month to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a group of 18 human rights groups and labor organizations highlighted the Rohingya issue, while urging the U.S. government to put more pressure on Bangkok to crack down on the seafood industry and keep fish caught by slaves from ending up on American dinner tables.

“The (Thai) government continues to be at best complacent, at worst complicit, in the trafficking of migrant workers from neighboring countries to provide inexpensive labor for export industries,” they wrote.

———

After a year on the boat, Chan finally started getting paid: about $87 every two months. He continued working for a total of three and a half years, until he started coughing blood and became too weak to continue.

When he asked the captain if he could go home, he was told to get back to work.

“I thought it was better to die by jumping into the water than to die by being tortured by these people,” he said. “When I was about to jump, my friend grabbed me from the back and saved me.”

His crew members instead convinced him to slip away the next time they made land, and he eventually escaped into Ambon where a local woman helped him get treatment for tuberculosis. After recovering, he decided to stay with her, and she treated him like a son. He worked odd jobs for the next four years, but never stopped dreaming of home.

Finally, at age 24, he found someone at Indonesia’s immigration office willing to help. And in March, the International Organization for Migration arranged for him and 21 other trafficked Burmese fishermen to fly home.

Hours before boarding the plane, Chan wondered what would be left of his old life when he landed. More than seven years had passed without a letter or a phone call. He had no idea if he would be able to find his family, or even if they were still alive.

“After I knew the broker sold me into slavery … I felt so sad,” he said. “When I left Myanmar, I had a great life.”

By Margie Mason, Associated Press

Published on 14 June 2014

Thailand reverses ILO convention no vote, joins international labor rights consensus, Undercurrent News

Thailand reversed its initial no vote to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) protocol Friday afternoon on the heels of statements of shock and outrage from the international community.

In doing so, Thailand joins the near-consensus that passed the protocol at the ILO convention against slave labor in Geneva, Switzerland on Wednesday in a vote of 437 for, 27 abstentions, and eight against. Four of the against votes had been from Thailand.

This comes amidst intense pressure for Thailand to give every public indication of its concern for human trafficking problems as the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report release comes next week.

Thai official Patana Bhandhufalk, labor attache at Thailand Permanent Mission to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva sent a statement to the ILO governing body reversing the country’s stance on Friday.

“…We have decided to join the consensus in adopting the said protocol, bearing in mind our need to proceed in accordance with our domestic requirements,” Bhandufalk wrote in the statement.

The Thai delegation that attended the convention reversed its position after consulting further with the capital “at the policy level”, she said.

The delegation seems to have initially voted no on the protocol due to concerns over whether it was ready to implement it, according to Bhanufalk’s explanation to the ILO.

“Thai law provides all workers in Thailand with protection in relation to working conditions as well as related benefits regardless of nationality,” Bhandufalk wrote. “This includes protection against forced labor. Nevertheless, to adopt any specific instrument, we have to seriously consider our own readiness to implement such an instrument, in conformity with the entire instrument’s context and the relevant Thai laws.”

Other sources in Thailand told Undercurrent News that Thai bureaucracy did not think it was able to currently ratify protocol given the uncertainty of the country’s political regime, thereby making the vote “a procedural objection rather than a substantive one”.

A second source replied that this sounded like a face-saving explanation as the country backtracked on its ill-advised decision; that the delegation could merely have abstained rather than voting against.

One Thai source spoken to on Friday had warned Undercurrent there may have been a misunderstanding, which, it seems, may have been this procedural confusion.

Thailand’s government is currently in flux after the army declared martial law and then a military coup in May.

The reversal of the decision comes “given the importance of this issue, and our strong commitment to eliminate forced or compulsory labor,” Bhandufalk said.

Protocol brings labor rights efforts into new era

The ILO hails the passage of this new protocol, supported by a recommendation, as a step to bring the ILO Convention 29, adopted in 1930, into the modern era.

It is legally binding and requires governments to take measures to better protect workers, in particular migrant laborers, from fraudulent and abusive recruitment practices and emphasizes the role of employers and workers in the fight against forced labor.

Being legally binding means the protocol and the recommendation “go beyond pious words”, Ed Potter, committee employer vice chair said.

“This is a humanitarian moment, a human rights moment, and represents what the international business community stands for – respect for human rights,” he added.

By Jeanine Stewart & Neil Ramsden

Published on 14 June 2014

Thai Union plans to cut wild fish from shrimp feed by 2020, Undercurrent News

Thai Union Frozen Products, the country’s largest shrimp processor and second largest in feed, states it plans to cut all wild fish from its shrimp feed by 2020, on the same day Carrefour stated it will stop buying from Charoen Pokphand Foods.

After an article from UK paper the Guardian linked CP Foods to slavery on vessels that supply fish to feed factories in its supply chain, Thai Union has come out and made a statement on its plans on feed.

“With a commitment to protect the environment and prevent the labor rights abuses in its supply chain, Thai Union’s R&D team is working on the shrimp feed formulae with an aim to progressively become less dependent on the fishmeal sourced from captured fisheries,” said a statement from the company.

“By 2020, the group targets at 100% that its shrimp feed is completely free of wild-caught fish,” it continued.

A Thai Union spokeswoman told Undercurrent News the company is already selling ‘D-Grow’, a commercial brand under Thai Union Feedmill, containing zero fishmeal from the sea.

On May 21, Wit Soontaranun, the company’s sustainability director, told Undercurrent Thai Union is working on improving the formulae of its shrimp feed made from tuna plant byproducts instead of wild catch fish.

The Thai firm, which is the world’s largest tuna canner, already sends 100% of the by-products from its tuna plants for use in sustainable shrimp feed.

However, improving the formula with a view to gaining certification for the feed is now a focus for the company’s R&D department.

“One way to help [with the sustainability of shrimp feed issue] is to reduce fishing pressure in the Gulf,” Soontaranun told Undercurrent, at the time.

In the statement issued Friday, as CP Foods also issued a strong response to the Guardian article, Thai Union restated “its ethical business sourcing policy prohibits any form of forced labor, child labor or exploitation of human rights and is working uncompromisingly to comply with the international standards to prevent human rights violation of any kind”.

Its suppliers have been made known and had taken cooperative efforts in assuring that there is no human trafficking in their chains of business conduct, the company said.

“We have made it very clear that any misconduct in relation to human trafficking found will result in a serious consequence to suspend such trade relationship with no compromise. We proactively work with relevant stakeholders to ensure necessary actions are taken by creating constructive dialogues and strong co-operations that contribute to significant improvement of the human rights practices throughout our supply and distribution chains,” said Thiraphong Chansiri, Thai Union president and CEO.

Thai Union “customers and consumers worldwide can rest assured that it strictly sources high quality premium grade shrimp feed of which hygiene and freshness are utmost important. Additionally, the procurement team conducts regular inspections with all fishmeal suppliers not only at their processing facilities but also at the ports where raw materials are secured”, the company said.

Thai Union has been giving “its full support” to Thailand Trade Associations, Government officials, NGOs and other key stakeholders in order to play a part in tackling this serious issues in the Thai fishing industry, the company said.

Additionally, specific concern on Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report rating by the US Department of States on Thailand is also intensifying.

“Thailand’s industry associations have been jointly working extremely hard as ‘Thailand Team’ in order to tackle and improve the good labor practices in the fishing industry since 2010 and it has shown a significant standard improvement to date,” Chansiri   said.

“Regardless of TIP report, Thai Union Group holds consistent values in respect to promoting good labor practices. Our commitment to internationally accepted code of conducts such as Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) are in compliance with all human rights clauses,” he said.

“We know for the fact that TIP report does not have any direct mandatory implication on the business relationship with our business partners. However, we will continue to work with our business partners and key stakeholders in making sure that not only our business operations are in compliance but all our suppliers’ must be free from human trafficking and human rights violations, which we would never tolerate in any cases,” said Chansiri.

By Tom Seaman

Published on 13 June 2014

Thailand confident it will avoid US TIP downgrade, Undercurrent News

Thailand has made enough progress to avoid being downgraded on the US State Department’s 2014 Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report, said the Thai embassy in Washington DC, the US capital.

The country’s progress in combating human trafficking is “not only meaningfully greater than in previous years, but also greater than progress made by other countries previously upgraded in the US TIP report”, said the embassy.

With release of the US State Department’s 2014 Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report expected next week, Thailand has worked closely with the State Department to satisfy all TIP office queries about on-going law enforcement action and statistics related to investigations, inspections, prosecutions and convictions in 2013, it was announced.

“Thailand has made significant advances in combating human trafficking, working with our partners at home and abroad including neighboring nations, the US, the EU, international organizations and NGOs to implement preventive measures, to protect and assist victims and, importantly, to bring human traffickers to justice,” said Vijavat Isarabhakdi, ambassador of the Kingdom of Thailand to the US.

“Human trafficking is one of the worst forms of human indignity and Thailand is committed to eliminating this inhumane exploitation,” he said.

Progress is shown by concrete results, the embassy insisted.

Thai law enforcement statistics show significant progress in investigations, prosecutions and convictions of perpetrators, including 674 trafficking investigations by Thai officials in 2013 – more than double from 306 similar investigations in 2012.

There were 483 trafficking defendants prosecuted in the Thai judicial system in 2013 – five times more than 93 similar prosecutions in 2012, and 225 trafficking defendants convicted and punished for their crimes in 2013 – a more than fourfold increase from 49 similar convictions in 2012.

Investigation of Thai officials alleged to be complicit in cases related to human trafficking noticeably increased in 2013. At least 33 police and 5 high-ranking police officials were either punished or are now under civil and/or criminal processes, it was said.

The significant rise in 2013 human trafficking law enforcement numbers is directly attributable to elevated inter-agency collaboration within the Thai government, Thai law enforcement, intensified actions and a standardized methodology for tracking and reporting data, the embassy said.

“Thailand’s demonstrated awareness, cooperation and progress in combating human trafficking in 2013 clearly exceeds the US State Department’s criteria for an upgrade on the 2014 TIP Report,” added Isarabhakdi.

The embassy’s statement comes at the end of another bad week for Thailand’s image, with CP Foods accused of using fishmeal sourced from the country’s slave labor fishing crews.

Major international retailers, buying shrimp from CP Foods, condemned the findings from the Guardian newspaper, and Carrefour has today announced it is suspending all purchases from the Thai firm as a precautionary measure.

By Undercurrent News

Published on 13 June 2014

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