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Human Trafficking in Thailand: The Never-Ending Agony of Victims

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

We are scarcely able to fully comprehend the mental and physical torment of those who are abused by human trafficking groups - the perpetuators of modern slavery - unless we put ourselves in their shoes.

Could you imagine if you were born into the bottom class of society, where you struggle on a day-to-day basis to feed yourself? And, as the eldest sibling, you feel obliged to shoulder most of the family burdens as younger relatives are still vulnerable and helpless? One day, however, you meet someone generous offering you to work abroad. They bombard you with rose-tinted ideas, especially ones associated with earning a large sum of money, allowing you to support your family back home. Does such luck really exist? No. When you, susceptible to the lure of money, enter a destination country, all your documents get taken away, or burnt, and you become forced to become an unpaid labourer with adverse working and living conditions. You have become subject to one of the three main types of human trafficking - labour, sex and child trafficking.[1]

Unrealistically dramatic and shocking it may seem, such situation has happened to a multitude of people worldwide and the tactic above is just one of several means employed by transnational human traffickers to victimise vulnerable people.

The case of 28-year old Umida, an Uzbek citizen who had to look after numerous family members, helps illustrate this detrimental issue vividly.[2] Succumb to poverty and unemployment caused by the economic crisis that faced their country, a great number of Uzbeks, including Umida, were in turn put in a situation where seeking work abroad seems to be one of the key answers.[3] When Umida met an Uzbek, who promised a lucrative job in Thailand, she thought luck had fallen into her lap; however, she unfortunately fell victim to sex trafficking and was forced to work as a prostitute on the street of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok.[4]

One might be questioning what the role of international law and organisations play in relation to such crisis.

Have they aided victims trapped in the ‘human-trafficking crisis’? Have they done anything to prevent future horrors?

The following paragraphs will discuss the impact of international law regarding trafficking of persons on domestic enforcement, focusing on Thailand in particular.

Throughout decades, nation states have, of course, worked collaboratively to liberate victims of human trafficking, protect potential victims, and eliminate trafficking bodies through international legislation. The most reputable and recent international legislation lies in the ‘United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime’. Other two related protocols are the ‘United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children’, and the ‘United Nations Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air.’[5] These protocols provide countries with channels to demonstrate their compliance for International agreements, the most tangible of which are signature, ratification and enforcement of the agreements.[6] International cooperation in effect has led Thailand to make some remarkable progress.

To begin with, ‘Thailand’s Anti-Trafficking Act’ has been cited as ‘one of the most well drafted in light of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol), in Southeast Asia.’[7] Significantly, the government has revised the definition of the term ‘exploitation’ and added the phrase ‘practices similar to slavery.’ Besides this, the country has redefined the phrase ‘forced labour or services’ to also cover seizure of identification documents and debt bondage.[8] A concrete effect of this progress is that the scope domestic law has expanded, prohibiting more trafficking activities; ones that were once seen as ‘lawful’ or were omitted unconsciously by the legislature. As a result, traffickers would be discouraged to flirt with ‘danger.’ Furthermore, judges could easily construe the law in a way that confirms the legislature’s intention, by clarifying or amending ambiguous words in statutes. Most importantly, this will bar judges from interpreting the law in the wrongdoers’ favour - an alleged issue in Thailand.

In addition, Thailand has recently amended the 2009 memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Thailand and Myanmar on ‘Cooperation to Combat Trafficking in Persons’ to resolve its limitations and to ensure bilateral collaboration. Both parties arranged a discussion which took place between the 8th and the 10th of August 2018.[9] In brief, the definition of victims, which was a limitation of the old MoU, has been modified, ensuring that all victims are protected. To elaborate, Thailand is a country which upholds a Civil Law system meaning most International agreements are written documents. Therefore, how the MOU was written is pivotal to their justice process. This amendment has, consequently, made a considerable impact on the lives of victims of trafficking since the agreement now considers people from all backgrounds as victims, should they be exploited in trafficking activity.[10] Apart from this, both parties demonstrated their willingness to tackle this regionally significant problem, which is very crucial as the concept of ‘transnational’ is intrinsic to such type of crimes.

Despite some significant improvements achieved through the international legal framework and the political will of different countries, a myriad of people from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups are still unable to enjoy their deserved autonomy. In Thailand, ‘the reason for the perpetuation of the trade despite Thailand’s strong anti-trafficking legislation lies in the need to translate normative desire into substantive practices.’[11]

A prominent example of the obstacles is an absence of training of the local enforcement in Thailand and some other countries.[12]

The local authorities often treat survivors of trafficking as criminals or illegal immigrants instead of refugees in spite of the 1951 Protocol, which consists of several customary International laws such as non-refoulement.[13]

Theoretically, Thai authorities cannot avoid abiding by the law. However, the officials literally apply the 1979 Immigration Act (their domestic law) in practice, which does not differentiate between refugees and other foreigners.[14] This very dilemma has not been seriously tackled, putting the lives of trafficked victims in jeopardy.

Moreover, deep-seated in Thailand and many other countries throughout South East Asia, seemingly insurmountable corruption has sustained human trafficking in the country. This usually occurs when a trafficker is a high-ranking government official who can influentially make an order to deport or imprison any officials who impartially work to help uncover trafficking activities of which they are involved.[15] An extreme case which has been rampant in the media did show that officials working straightforwardly could encounter life threatening. Major General Paween Pongsirin had to flee Thailand because of such intimidation after exposing a criminal syndicate liable for trafficking Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh.[16]

On balance, although international law and political participation of various countries have profoundly impacted Thai domestic laws, increased strictness and less ambiguity of the laws have not been fully utilised. This is due to ‘the inability to translate normative desire to substantive enforcement’ and the deep-rooted corruption within Thailand. As a result, vulnerable people, who live in countries where prerequisites for human life are deprived from citizens, are still prone to trafficking in persons. And Thailand will continue to be a transit and centre of the crime if the crux of the matter is not resolved.

Sami Kemmachat (International Law)


[1] Nataliya Opanovych , 'Semantic scholar' (Human trafficking for sex exploitation in Thailand, 24th May) <> accessed 27 November 2019

[2] Ashton Kobler, 'Escaping the clutches of sex trafficking in Thailand' (Aljazeera, 30 July 2017) <> accessed 25 November 2019

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Lindsey King, 'International Law and Human Trafficking' (Duedu, -) <> accessed 25 November 2019

[6] Ibid

[7] John Quinley iii, 'Why Does Human Trafficking Persist in Thailand?' (The Asia Dialogue , 11 January 2018) <> accessed 25November 2019

[8] Ibid

[9] 2009 MOU between Thailand and Myanmar 2009

[10] 2019 MoU between Thailand and Myanmar 2018

[11] John Quinley iii, 'Why Does Human Trafficking Persist in Thailand?' (The Asia Dialogue , 11 January 2018) <> accessed 25November 2019

[12] Lindsey King, 'International Law and Human Trafficking' (Duedu, -) <> accessed 25 November 2019

[13] Unhcr, 'Human Trafficking' (UNHCR, -) <> accessed 23 November 2019

[14] John Quinley iii, 'Why Does Human Trafficking Persist in Thailand?' (The Asia Dialogue , 11 January 2018) <> accessed 25November 2019

[15] The Editorial Board, 'Human Trafficking on Trial in Thailand' (The New York Times, 25 March 2016) <> accessed 23 November 2019

[16] John Quinley iii, 'Why Does Human Trafficking Persist in Thailand?' (The Asia Dialogue , 11 January 2018) <> accessed 25November 2019

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