The 20015 TIP report has been issued last week and, as predicted, Thailand landed in Tier 3 again. But I don’t want to dwell on the reactions to the Tier 3 ranking, rather I want to share a few thoughts about the changes Thailand might consider to revise their anti-trafficking efforts, especially when it comes to protection of survivors.
Thailand’s conceptualization of victim protection seems to be very narrow. It focuses mainly on physical safety of victims. In order to ensure the safety of victims, the Thai government runs several shelters where survivors are kept during the so-called ‘identification process.’ The term seems to be a misnomer. The victims have already been found—identified–but now have to go through a legal process, often very lengthy, which determines whether they will receive their back wages or damages. The payment of back wages or assessment of damages hinges very much on the strength of the court case against the traffickers. It seems that “identification” really means prosecution. Survivors—regardless of age–must collaborate with law enforcement to get a change to receive any money the courts might decide is owed the survivors.
I had a chance to visit some of the shelters this past month. The shelters are located on the outskirts of Bangkok, far away from any modes of public transportation. One is situated on a small island in the middle of a river and can only be reached by a boat. All of the shelters I visited were spacious, clean, and well maintained. The sprawling gardens surrounding them are luscious and beautifully landscaped with birds of paradise flowers and other breathtaking flora. While the residents can walk around the gardens to their hearts content, they cannot leave the premises unless accompanied by a government officer or guard. In one of the shelters, the Rohingya men worked and could go shopping, but never without a watchful eye of the shelter official. Women do not have the same priviledges. They have no means of transportation for one, but the shelter authorities are also worried that their charges–adults or children–may not return to the shelter if allowed to go anywhere on their own.
When I asked why the boys residing in one of the shelters could not go to school one a school bus, the director said: “They would escape in no time and return to begging in the streets.” At a shelter for women, I was told that the women don’t want to leave the premises because they are afraid of the pimps and madams that might be lurking around. Perhaps…. But there was no proof of anybody skulking around the island.
According to the shelter staff, most survivors do not identify as victims of trafficking. “They don’t know any better,” said one shelter director. “We have to convince them that that’s who they are,” she said. Most survivors eventually agree to the designation as trafficked victims. This is their only chance to attempt to recoup the back wages.
Shelter residents are provided with three square meals, comfortable beds, clean clothes, but little else. Mental health counseling and occupational therapy do not lead to development of new skills. The Thai anti-trafficking law does not provide for any immigration relief or temporary residency permits outside the government-run shelters. Work permits are also limited. The only option at the end of the long legal process is to return home—to Burma, Laos, Cambodia–to the poverty that the men, women, and children tried to escape. If they are lucky they return with a few hundred dollars at most. If they are Rohingya, they have no home to which to return.
It seems that issuing residency and work permits—even temporary ones—would go a long way towards ensuring protection of victims. The concept of protection ought to be expanded to include rights: a right to exercise one’s agency, a right to free, unescorted movement, and a right not to be locked up. Expansion of rights is also the best mental health remeay for the trauma these exploited workers endured.
The notion of protection needs to be also extended to safe return home, but that is a topic for another blog.