Abuse against migrants, human trafficking, and impunity continues

(Bangkok, February 24, 2016)—The European Commission should extend Thailand’s “yellow card” for another six months to ensure the government adequately addresses human rights abuses and other concerns in the fishing sector, said Fortify Rights and more than 20 other labor, environmental, and human rights organizations today.

The European Commission issued Thailand an initial “yellow card” in April 2015 for “not taking sufficient measures in the international fight against illegal fishing.” This began a formal dialogue between the Commission and Thai authorities, and the Commission granted Thailand six months to take corrective measures or face a potential ban on fishing exports to the European Union. In October 2015, the Commission extended the yellow-card designation for another six months. 

Fortify Rights and 26 other organizations sent a letter to the European Commission February 17, highlighting Thailand’s lack of “demonstrated results” in curbing illegal fishing practices, combatting human trafficking, and addressing bonded and forced labor across the entire seafood industry. 

The letter states that the E.U.’s current yellow card designation on Thailand has spurred significant and positive legal reforms in the fishing industry, but that further action is necessary to ensure enforcement of these measures and sustainable protections for all workers in the sector.

“Now is an operative time for Thailand to end abuses against migrant workers and combat human trafficking in the fishing sector,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “The E.U. has the attention of the Thai authorities and should keep that attention focused on ending ongoing abuses, not on premature reward. Much work remains to be done.” 

At the end of 2015, Thailand passed the Royal Ordinance on Fisheries to address illegal fishing and established monitoring and traceability mechanisms to detect vessels engaged in illegal fishing and trace their products. However, concerns remain about the effective implementation of these policies and systems as well as the lack of adequate protections for workers in the fishing industry.

The organizations flagged the continuation of labor trafficking within the fishing industry, increasingly apparent linkages between illegal fishing and forced labor, and the failure of the Thai government to fully investigate and hold to account unscrupulous fleet owners and captains engaged in illegal fishing as well as government officials complicit in human trafficking. 

In December, Fortify Rights issued a press release calling on Thailand to reopen the investigation into the human trafficking of Rohingya in Thailand and ensure the protection of investigators, witnesses, and survivors after the chief investigator in the case, Police Major General Paween Pongsirin, fled to Australia, fearing for his life. Paween explained to Fortify Rights how high-ranking government officials repeatedly obstructed and prematurely halted the investigation before further wrongdoing and complicity by high-ranking government officials could be uncovered.

Thai authorities have since threatened Paween with criminal defamation charges—a tactic frequently used in Thailand to attempt to silence human rights defenders and critics of the government.

In a press release issued on December 24, Fortify Rights raised further concern with the lack of protection and indefinite detention of survivors of human trafficking in Thailand.

“Protection is a cornerstone in the fight against human trafficking. The failure of the Thai authorities to prioritize protection puts survivors at risk of further exploitation and heightens the potential for re-trafficking,” said Amy Smith. “Thailand needs to stop detaining survivors and start implementing genuine protections.”

Fortify Rights expressed particular concern over Thailand’s treatment of stateless Rohingya trafficked to Thailand after fleeing widespread and systematic abuses in Myanmar. An estimated 400 Rohingya refugees are currently detained in immigration detention facilities or government-run shelters in Thailand. Unable to return to Myanmar, Rohingya are indefinitely detained in Thailand and at particular risk of being re-trafficked.

Within the past three months, Fortify Rights estimates that 22 Rohingya have “escaped” shelters in southern Thailand and believes they were trafficked to Malaysia.

In addition, Thailand has not significantly improved the rights of migrant workers, which hinders anti-trafficking work and efforts to improve the fishing sector. Procedures for migrant workers to register in Thailand remain ad hoc, unnecessarily complex, and subject to exploitative labor brokers, said Fortify Rights.

The organizations said that Thailand should implement a time-bound, measurable action plan focused on effective enforcement to protect human rights and ensure progress toward a legal, sustainable, and ethical seafood industry.

If Thailand fails to demonstrate significant improvements in the next six months, the organizations said the European Commission should consider issuing Thailand a “red card,” which would lead to an E.U.-wide trade ban on seafood products from Thailand.

In April 2015 and February 2016, Fortify Rights met with senior Thai government officials to discuss ongoing concerns with regard to human trafficking in Thailand. Fortify Rights has also discussed its concerns with E.U. and U.S. officials as well as other members of the diplomatic community.

“We’re encouraged by Thailand’s willingness to engage in dialogue on issues of human trafficking and concerns for refugees and migrants in Thailand,” said Amy Smith. “However, this dialogue must translate into concrete action if Thailand’s commitment to address these issues is genuine.”

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