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Thai fishing trade under fire for human trafficking PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 24 March 2012 00:00

Thailand's fishing industry has come under increasing scrutiny for human trafficking as desperate Cambodians continue to jump off Thai fishing boats to escape life- threatening conditions with no pay.

The country now risks being downgraded to Tier 3 on the United States' annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report due out in June.

A Tier 3 listing can trigger sanctions and suspension of some bilateral programmes. The looming downgrade comes as Thailand does little to address the structural issues that make trafficking possible, activists say, despite a warning last August from a United Nations rapporteur.

Mr Eaklak Loomchomkhae, who heads Thai non-government organisation (NGO) Mirror Foundation's anti-trafficking efforts, estimates that there is a labour shortage of 70,000 in Thailand's fishing industry.

Migrant labour from poorer neighbours, especially Cambodia, helps fill the gap. But poor migrants often fall prey to illegal brokers.

'The fishing industry is substandard, dirty and dangerous, and the pay is low,' Mr Eaklak said. In many cases, workers are virtually used as slave labour and not paid.

Trafficking is rampant across the region, with trafficking for the sex trade, often involving children, making headline news.

But the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that this group comprised less than 10 per cent of the 9.5 million victims of human trafficking in Asia in 2005.

Over the past three months, about 30 Cambodians have been rescued after jumping overboard from Thai fishing vessels.

Last year, Tenaganita, a Malaysian NGO, helped in the rescue and repatriation of some 100 Cambodians. Many had swum ashore at Tanjung Manis, Sarawak's largest harbour.

Activists want not only a Thai crackdown on trafficking, but also an Asean-wide agreement and mechanism to tackle the issue.

'There has to be a regional approach to this,' Ms Irene Fernandez, director of Tenaganita, said in a telephone interview.

Cambodians have told harrowing tales of being promised decent jobs in Thailand only to find themselves put on fishing boats to work long hours without pay far out at sea. Those who fall sick get a few anti-fever tablets. Some of those deemed too ill to work are simply thrown overboard, they claim.

The ILO's 2005 report concluded that 10 per cent of young men who worked on fishing boats in South-east Asia did not return from their trips.

The adoption of a law on human trafficking in 2008 has brought little or no change.

Speaking at the end of her visit to Thailand last August, Ms Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, cited 'weak and fragmented' implementation of the 2008 law, due partly to corruption among low-level law enforcement officials.

The Thai government has objected to what it calls Washington's 'unilateralism' and the use of the TIP report as 'an effective foreign policy tool'. But a senior Thai official has also acknowledged that the TIP report 'does help focus' on the problem.

Mr Chutintorn Sam Gongsakdi, deputy director-general of the Thai Foreign Ministry's Department of International Organisations, told a forum on trafficking in the fishing industry recently: 'There will be a significant improvement in two to three years. Maybe not enough for the TIP report this year.'

By Nirmal Ghosh, Thailand Correspondent

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