Breakthrough resolution passed by Thai authorities

(Bangkok, April 19, 2016)—The Government of Thailand has moved to protect the human rights of witnesses and survivors of human trafficking, Fortify Rights said today. 

On March 15, Thai authorities passed a Cabinet Resolution that, if implemented, would grant formal witness protection to all witnesses in human trafficking trials in Thailand and provide protective legal status for survivors. Thailand’s Ministry of Interior (MOI) subsequently issued two orders in support of the Cabinet Resolution on March 29, and the Permanent Secretary to the MOI Krisada Bunrat publicly affirmed the resolution on April 10. 

“This could be a concrete step to aid prosecutions and protect the rights of survivors of human trafficking,” said Amy Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “We applaud the authorities for these efforts, and we’re eager to see them implemented without delay.”

Cabinet Resolution no. 11/B.E.2559 would provide witness protection under the Ministry of Justice to witnesses in human trafficking cases as well as fast-track documentation, including work permits, for survivors of human trafficking to stay freely in Thailand for up to one year with the possibility of extension. 

These measures would significantly impact the situation and conditions for 136 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshi nationals, who are at-risk and currently confined to government-operated shelters, in addition to other survivors of trafficking, Fortify Rights said. 

As of December, Thai authorities provided formal witness protection under the Ministry of Justice for only 12 of approximately 500 witnesses in the country’s largest-ever human trafficking trial. The high-profile trial alleges 92 defendants—including powerful senior officials from the Army, Navy, and Police—trafficked more than 100 ethnic-Rohingya Muslim refugees and Bangladeshi nationals through illicit camps in the country.

In December, Fortify Rights called on the Government of Thailand to increase protection for investigators and witnessesinvolved in this human trafficking trial and has since engaged in a series of meetings with high-level government officials to discuss concrete and practical solutions to address the situation of Rohingya in detention.

Fortify Rights reported that members of Thailand’s state security forces and transnational criminal syndicates allegedly forced key witnesses in the trial into hiding, including Police Major General Paween Pongsirin, the chief investigator in the case, who feared for his life and is now seeking political asylum in Australia.

In the last year, several Rohingya detained in government-operated shelters reportedly went missing or “escaped,” raising concerns about their protection and the potential for re-trafficking.

International law binding on Thailand provides for witness protection. Article 13 of the Convention Against Torture requires state parties “to ensure that the complainant and witnesses are protected against all ill-treatment or intimidation as a consequence of his [or her] complaint or any evidence given.” 

“This resolution could help end the unjustified, protracted detention of trafficking survivors,” said Amy Smith. “We encourage the authorities to extend this positive precedent to similarly-situated refugees, who continue to languish in detention facilities across Thailand.”

The Government of Thailand has long regarded Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar as “illegal migrants,” detaining them in Immigration Detention Centers (IDCs) as opposed to government-operated shelters. IDCs in Thailand are not equipped for long-term detention. In addition to the 136 Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals who are detained in government-operated shelters, there are 184 Rohingya and 89 Bangladeshi nationals detained in Thailand’s IDCs, including 45 unaccompanied children and youth under the age of 18 years old.

Last month, Fortify Rights visited Rohingya in the Songkhla IDC, where detainees reported that 40 Rohingya refugees, including unaccompanied children, are confined to a cell 24-hours a day with inadequate personal space and a single functioning toilet.

Thailand has long been a hotbed of human trafficking. The U.S. Department of State ranked Thailand Tier-3—its lowest ranking—in the last year’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. On March 22, Fortify Rights provided testimony to the U.S. Congress describing how Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia failed in 2015 to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking as set forth in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Human trafficking is defined under international law as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons” by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, or abuse of power “for the purpose of exploitation.” 

Fortify Rights recommended that the U.S. Department of State assign Thailand, Myanmar, and Malaysia to Tier-3 in its forthcoming TIP report. This year’s rankings will be based on government efforts and actions to combat human trafficking in 2015.

“Thailand should be lifted from Tier-3 only once when it has translated its positive reforms into positive action,” said Amy Smith. “Protection for survivors is critical to combat human trafficking, and we’re hopeful that Thai authorities are finally recognizing this fact.” 

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