It is almost the middle of July 2015 and the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which is usually released in June, has not been issued yet. Many countries are waiting with baited breath to see their ranking. Thailand is one such country.
In 2014 Thailand was downgraded in the TIP Report to the bottom-of-the-pile Tier 3 ranking the “Global Sheriff,” as Janie Chuang aptly calls the J/TIP office in the U.S. State Department, established to judge countries on their anti-trafficking activities. Many criticisms have been leveled against the TIP Report in the past: in opinion pieces and blog posts as well as journal articles. One of the most common criticisms of the TIP Report is that it exists to serve the political interests of the United States. Researchers, however, also emphasize a flawed methodology that is used to rank countries.
I am not sure if the methodology is good or bad since it’s hard to assess what methodology the J/TIP uses. The 2014 TIP Report included five sentences on “methodology.” The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) doubted whether these sentences even qualify to be called a methodology section. Indeed, the report lists the types of organizations from which it gets information without mentioning specific government departments or agencies. There is also no information whether or how the received information is vetted, whether it is based on empirical research or administrative data or opinions expressed by those that submit the information.
The U.S. Department of State prepared this Report using information from U.S. embassies, government officials, non-governmental and international organizations, published reports, news articles, academic studies, research This email address provides a means by which organizations and individuals can share information with the Department of State on government progress in addressing trafficking. U.S. diplomatic posts and domestic agencies reported on the trafficking situation and governmental action to fight trafficking based on thorough research that included meetings with a wide variety of government officials, local and international NGO trips to every region of the world, and information submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org representatives, officials of international organizations, journalists, academics, and survivors. U.S. missions overseas are dedicated to covering human trafficking issues. The 2014 TIP Report covers government efforts undertaken from April 1, 2013 through March 31, 2014. 
My discussions with government representatives and NGOs in Bangkok indicate that neither the Thai civil servants nor the civil society understand how the ranking system works and against what criteria the information they provided is evaluated. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, did not receive a satisfactory answer to their query why J/TIP assessed the prosecutions that the Thai government launched in 2014 as low. Were these numbers assessed against previous year’s prosecutions (indeed the number of persecutions in 2014 was lower than in 2013), against the number of identified survivors of trafficking or against estimates of trafficked victims?
Solid data on trafficking is hard to come by in Thailand. The Ministry of Social Development that is responsible for funding and providing services to survivors of human trafficking does not release the data that government-run shelters for victims report to the Ministry. I visited the Kredtrakarn Protection and Occupational Development Centre (Nonthaburi Province) last week and asked the director how many victims she served last year. She wouldn’t tell me; she said this is confidential information. She did mention, however, that she could house as many as 200 victims at any given time and that 180 survivors of trafficking were living in the shelter on the day visited. I tried to play simple math with her and asked average number of victims served every year, the number of months victims stay in the shelter, but to no avail. I asked a similar question of an intergovernmental organization that provides assistance to victims and the silence was deafening. Why this fear of sharing information? Obviously, I was not asking for names of victims or any other type of data that should be protected by privacy laws.
Local NGOs were more forthcoming with information. The Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) and the Labor Promotion Network (LPN) told me they had served about 500 victims each in the last 10 years. Is that a lot? Again, it is hard to make an assessment, as we don’t know to what to compare these numbers. Given the limited resources each organization has—foreign donors exclusively fund both—it seems that the caseloads are substantial. However, given the challenges of estimating the number of trafficked persons in Thailand—see a rather robust attempt by Courtland Robinson of the Johns Hopkins University, in collaboration with Sompong Srakaew of LPN, to assess the number of trafficked victims among Burmese labor workers in Samut Sakhon–these numbers are really meaningless.
Thailand is waiting for the TIP Report in an empirical vacuum and worries as it follows testimonies of people such as Mark Lagon, the former Ambassador at Large in the J/TIP office, who urged the U.S. government to sustain a tier-three ranking should the government of Thailand not show strong will to take corrective action to address human trafficking in short order.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think there is no trafficking in Thailand. Even during my short visit, supported by the Fulbright Program, I have seen and heard advocates and scholars alike talk about egregious labor exploitation in many industries, but especially in the fishing industry. Earlier this year—in May 2015—the Thai police discovered a few dozen graves on the Thai-Malaysia border of Muslim Rohingyas, who according to the police reports were “starved to death or died of disease while being held by traffickers who were awaiting payment of ransoms.”
The Thai government is making improvements to its response to human trafficking. On July 8, 2015 the Bangkok Post reported that authorities are setting up a special inter-agency body to strengthen investigations of human trafficking cases. The new unit includes representatives of the Royal Thai Police Office, the Department of Special Investigation, and the Social Development and Human Security Ministry.
As Thailand waits for the TIP ranking, Reuters reports that its neighbor—Malaysia—has been upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List. Some human rights advocates and U.S. lawmakers expected Malaysia to remain in Tier 3. If the number of prosecutions and convictions of traffickers is a measure of complying with the minimum standards of anti-trafficking activities, Malaysia had reported 89 human-trafficking investigations in 2013, down from 190, and nine convictions compared with 21 in 2012. If indeed Malaysia appears on Tier 2 Watch List in the coming days, we will know that foreign and trade-policy drive the U.S. ranking system more so than empirical data. Malaysia is the current chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It is seeking to promote unity within the bloc in the face of China’s increasingly assertive pursuits of territorial claims in the South China Sea, an object of U.S. criticism. Malaysia also hopes to be a signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). TPP would link a dozen countries, cover 40 percent of the world economy and form a central element of President Obama’s strategic shift towards Asia.
 See Laura Augustin’s op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer (July 1, 2007) or a blog posted from 2009 http://www.lauraagustin.com/whats-wrong-with-the-trafficking-crusade http://www.lauraagustin.com/tip-trafficking-in-persons-the-no-methodology-report
 See Janie Chuang (2006), The United States as Global Sheriff: Using Unilateral Sanctions to Combat Human Trafficking. Michigan Journal of International Law 25: 437-494. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=990098
 See the full testimony here http://www.cfr.org/global/illicit-fishing-human-trafficking/p32708