The year 2015 marked a turning point in the fight against human trafficking in the Thai fishing industry, when a rescue operation of stranded Burmese, Thai, Cambodian, and Lao fishermen in Indonesian waters brought international attention to human trafficking in Southeast Asia. The rescue operations were the culmination of a series of exposés published by the Associated Press, which chronicled how the Thai fishing industry was exploiting workers in slave-like conditions to supply seafood to American supermarkets and restaurants.
But while international pressure and attention forced the Royal Thai Government to enact important reforms to address human trafficking in the seafood industry, this was not the end of the story for the thousands of Thai fishermen who returned home after years, sometimes even decades, of abuse. The Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), a Thai labour rights NGO based in the port city of Samut Sakhon, Thailand, has witnessed first-hand the numerous obstacles returned fishermen face after their rescue and repatriation.
Obstacles in the prosecution process
The failures of trafficking in persons (TIP) prosecutions begin with victim identification. Despite the implementation of important reforms in the past years, only 7 TIP cases involving workers in the fishing sector were under investigation in 2017. Effective victim identification is hindered by the poor training of law enforcement officials, who may “fail to recognize non-physical indicators of trafficking, such as non-payment of wages and document confiscation”, according to the 2018 US TIP Report.
The complex nature of the activities associated with human trafficking also makes trafficking cases inherently difficult to prove. The people involved in human trafficking conduct a sophisticated and complex web of transnational operations involving multiple levels of intermediaries, making links between the accused and the victim extremely hard to follow and even harder to substantiate. The ability of most governments to gather evidence is also seriously compromised by overreliance on trafficked persons’ testimonies. Survivors may be unable to recall specific facts or events due to trauma or the sheer long-term nature of their ordeal. They may also be unwilling to cooperate due to intimidation from their traffickers.
In LPN’s experience, the Thai criminal justice system’s deficiencies are further exacerbated by low rates of victim participation in the judicial process. Government victim assistance programmes often fail to properly consider victims’ individual needs and interests, undermining their ability and willingness to effectively cooperate in prosecutions. The disregard for victims is first apparent during initial identification, when they may be pressured into acting as witnesses without due consideration of their physical or mental state. Law enforcement officials tasked with identification often disregard factors such as gender, immigration status, fear of reprisals, trauma, language barriers, and cultural background. Moreover, in the name of witness protection, government-run shelters restrict trafficked persons’ freedom, mobility, and employment opportunities.
Strengthening prosecutions and incentivising survivors’ collaboration
In order to improve access to justice and compensation for trafficked fishermen and facilitate their long-term reintegration, the Thai government and civil society must work together to strengthen the criminal justice process and make it more victim-centred. One way this can be achieved is by getting rid of the compartmentalisation that exists between prosecutors, police, and social service agencies. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM), developed by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, provides an effective model of interagency cooperation that could be adopted by Thailand. The NRM is designed to formalise cooperation among government agencies and nongovernmental groups dealing with trafficked persons to ensure that the human rights of trafficked persons are respected and to provide an effective way to refer victims of trafficking to services.
State and civil society stakeholders can also place greater emphasis on trafficked persons’ individual needs and interests throughout the aftercare process. Research shows that countries with the most comprehensive measures for assisting victims (e.g. Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, United States) fare better in prosecuting and convicting traffickers for various crimes. One promising model developed by the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings introduces a recovery and reflection period of at least 30 days to give the individual a chance to recover and to escape the influence of traffickers and/or to make an informed decision on co-operating with the authorities.
As it currently stands, victim identifications in Thailand are often carried out in a hurry and at the expense of basic victim entitlements such as the right to an interpreter and access to a social worker. Government and civil society should therefore work together to make the identification process more victim-friendly while also addressing the lack of incentives for trafficked persons to cooperate in prosecutions.
Towards more empowering forms of assistance
However, the fact remains that the Thai government privileges a criminal justice approach to human trafficking that places more emphasis on prosecuting perpetrators and securing convictions than on supporting victims’ rights. Because civil society organisations are non-state actors that are not driven by the imperative to prosecute, they are better placed to provide grassroots interventions that empower survivors and facilitate their long-term reintegration.
One way civil society actors can support trafficked persons is by empowering them financially outside of the legal system. Unconditional cash transfers, for example, offer financial support to victims and allow them to meet their individual needs. The Issara Institute, a Bangkok-based migrant rights NGO, provided unconditional cash transfers to 174 victims of human trafficking in a pilot project from 2015 to 2016. Fifty-four of the participants were former fishermen who had been rescued from Indonesia. The evaluation of the pilot found no negative effects at the individual, household, or community level and confirmed the hypothesis that trafficked persons could manage cash grants responsibly.
While unconditional cash transfers offer a promising model for economic empowerment, it is important for service providers to develop programmes that empower trafficked persons beyond the economic sphere. Trafficking survivors are forced to do things against their will and endure force, coercion, abuse, or even torture. Victim assistance programmes must therefore address the psychological factors of agency and self-worth. Over the past few years, LPN has developed volunteer networks of rescued fishermen that investigate labour rights complaints in the fishing sector and helps victims seek legal redress. Volunteer networks such as LPN’s Thai & Migrant Fishers’ Union Group can be a particularly useful tool for reintegration because they facilitate survivors to actively participate in their own reintegration.
Cash transfers and volunteer social networks present effective approaches that can be used by both the Thai government and civil society to make victim assistance programmes more efficient, effective, and person-centred. If the reintegration of trafficked persons is to be successful, then the needs of survivors should be placed in a broader perspective that extends beyond the criminal justice system. Rather than protect survivors at the expense of their own empowerment, anti-trafficking stakeholders need to develop victim-centred approaches that balance the human rights of victims with the interests of effective prosecution.
A longer version of this article was first published in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 10