HONG KONG — The State Department released a report Friday that ranked Thailand and Malaysia among the two dozen countries doing the least to fight human trafficking, an embarrassment for the two Southeast Asian nations and a finding that could lead to economic and diplomatic penalties.
The downgrade to so-called Tier 3 status places the countries alongside North Korea, Iran and Zimbabwe in the eyes of the State Department, which publishes an annual reportassessing efforts by the world’s governments to combat human trafficking. Thailand now ranks below its neighbor Myanmar, a former Tier 3 country whose State Department rating has improved since it began moving toward democracy in recent years.
“Overall anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts remained insufficient compared with the size of the problem in Thailand, and corruption at all levels hampered the success of these efforts,” the report released on Friday said. “Despite frequent media and NGO reports documenting instances of forced labor and debt bondage among foreign migrants in Thailand’s commercial sectors — including the fishing industry — the government demonstrated few efforts to address these trafficking crimes.”
Recent reports by The Guardian and others have described the use of forced labor in Thailand’s seafood industry, often involving complicity on the part of Thai officials. In a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articleslast year, Reuters reported that Thai officials had been involved in selling Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar to human-trafficking rings, which sometimes sold them into servitude on fishing boats. The Thai Navy, some of whose personnel were implicated, has filed a lawsuit accusing two journalists of criminal defamation for printing an excerpt from one of the Reuters articles.
This week, a British researcher, Andy Hall, was detained by a Thai court and had his passport confiscated in connection with criminal defamation charges brought by a Thai food company. Mr. Hall, who was freed on bail, had spoken to Al Jazeera about abusive treatment of migrant workers by the company, Natural Fruit, which Mr. Hall had documented for a Finnish nongovernmental organization. The State Department report calls for such prosecutions of journalists and researchers to cease.
In Malaysia, the report said, many migrant workers are “exploited and subjected to practices indicative of forced labor, such as restrictions on movement, deceit and fraud in wages, passport confiscation, and imposition of significant debts by recruitment agents or employers.” Many foreign women recruited for ostensibly legal work in Malaysia are subsequently coerced into prostitution, the report said.
Because both Thailand and Malaysia had been in a “watch list” category for four consecutive years, both were due for automatic downgrades to Tier 3 this year unless the State Department judged that they had made significant strides in addressing their trafficking problems.
China, which was downgraded to Tier 3 status a year ago, was moved back up a level, to the watch list, in the new report.
Recently, Thailand has argued that its efforts have improved enough for it to avoid a downgrade. The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a news release this week that it had substantially more trafficking-related investigations, prosecutions and convictions last year than in 2012. Vijavat Isarabhakdi, the Thai ambassador to the United States, said in the release that Thailand was “committed to eliminating this inhumane exploitation.”
Luis CdeBaca, the ambassador at large at the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said that Thailand had indeed shown some improvement, mainly in sex-trafficking cases. But very little progress has been made in prosecuting the widely documented abuses of migrant workers and official complicity in them, he said.
“There’s a reason why so many folks are looking at the abuses in the migrant population there over the last years,” Mr. CdeBaca said. “That’s an area that needs more policing, more enforcement.”
Mr. CdeBaca said it was too early to judge what Thailand’s military coup last month would mean for the country’s human-trafficking problem. The junta has said that it will address the issue of undocumented workers in Thailand, including forced labor, but it has denied engaging in a violent crackdown on illegal migrants, fears of which have apparently prompted hundreds of thousands of Cambodian workers to leave the country since last week.
A Tier 3 designation by the State Department does not automatically result in penalties, but it can lead to the United States withholding some forms of aid and cultural exchange, or opposing some kinds of assistance from international bodies like the International Monetary Fund.
Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the annual report was a motivating factor for governments in the region less because of the potential for sanctions than because of the embarrassment of “being grouped into the worst of the worst.”