Arrest of one man does not address Thailand’s trafficking problem

As anyone who has spent any time in Thailand knows, children have worked on Bangkok’s Khaosan Road selling roses for years.

As anyone who has spent any time in Thailand knows, children have worked on Bangkok’s Khaosan Road selling roses for years. Child migrants from Myanmar wander up and down this infamous backpacker hangout, selling flowers for 20 baht (around 65 US cents).

On June 20 police arrested a 22-year-old man from Myanmar, suspected of trafficking children to sell roses around the Khaosan Road area. On the same day, Thailand was downgraded in the US’ annual trafficking report for mistreatment of migrant workers.

Thailand’s demotion in the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TiP) Report to the lowest rank comes with the possibility of the United States withholding or withdrawing “non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance”.

Perhaps more significantly, this ranking tarnishes the reputation of Thailand at a precarious time for the country.

Months of political protests, the removal of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and a military coup, have resulted in dwindling international trade and foreign tourism. The downgrade also comes on the heels of a year of media coverage on trafficking in persons within the Thai fishing industry and state authorities’ alleged complicity in it.

Consequently, the Thai military government will be looking for ways to improve its international reputation in order to instill confidence, in corporations and tourists, that the country is addressing trafficking in persons.

It seems that it was with this in mind that police carried out the Khaosan Road anti-trafficking operation just hours before their U.S. TiP Report demotion. Prior to the arrest, police investigated the Khaosan Road area where they picked up three children selling roses. Two more children were found in a residence nearby where the suspect was detained.

The story was originally reported on by Khaosod English, a local Thai daily newspaper that was working with an independent filmmaker on a documentary about children trafficked to sell roses on Khaosan Road. 

According to their analysis, the children were originally from Myanmar but were likely to have been living in Western Thailand with their families along the Myanmar border. In these migrant and refugee communities instances of trafficking have been uncovered in which parents are coerced by agents into sending their children to Bangkok in exchange for approximately 1,500 baht (about $47) a month.

There are a number of factors that create the conditions under which migrant and refugee parents from Myanmar become compelled to send their children away. Thailand is not party to the United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees nor the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

The refugees who have fled ethnic and religious persecution in Myanmar are not recognized as such in Thailand and are left unprotected without a legal status to live or work in the country. The lack of protections under the UN Convention is compounded by national immigration policies that range from decent but ineffectively implemented to excessively discriminatory.

In order to further investigate the cases of, and government response to, child rose sellers, Khaosod English requested an interview with the Thai Anti-Human Trafficking Division (AHTD) on June 18, just two days before the arrest (and release of the U.S. TiP Report). The newspaper believes it was this request for an interview that prompted the crackdown by police on the child rose selling operation.

Ultimately, it is more likely that the TiP report downgrade from tier 2 to tier 3 was what spurred the police into action. As the downgrade became apparent, Thailand felt it was important to take some sort of immediate action.

Perhaps this is an example of the U.S. TiP Report leading to actual efforts by governments to address trafficking in persons. Out of fear of the public shaming and possible sanctions that come with the Tier 3 ranking, Thailand did something. Whatever the motive may have been, the ramifications of these police and military interventions to address trafficking in persons need to be scrutinized.

First, the question must be asked, what did Thailand actually do? They arrested one man and took five children off the street. Thai authorities were looking to make an arrest which would lead to a trafficking prosecution. This is because prosecution rates are the standard by which the U.S. TiP Report determines whether or not countries are meeting minimum standards in addressing trafficking in persons.

Also important were tourists’ perceptions that Thailand was taking steps to address trafficking in persons. Carrying out this operation on a well-known tourist track would assist in this. In the end, there were no child rose sellers on Khaosan Road for about three weeks. They are now back which further demonstrates the innocuousness of the arrest on the child rose selling operation.

What happens to the children who are taken off the streets? Khaosad English reported that three of the children were moved to a state-owned children’s shelter while police tried to locate their parents. However, before a child is reunited with their family, NGOs and government officials evaluate the parents to ensure they “will not sell the children again”.  While it is encouraging that children are not sent back to parents without a risk-assessment being conducted, policies such as these are frequently more robust on paper than in reality.

Meanwhile, the root causes that saw their parents desperate enough to “sell” them in the first place are left unaddressed. The responses from the Thai military government to both their U.S. TiP Report demotion and negative media attention on the fishing industry demonstrate their reluctance to take responsibility in addressing trafficking in persons. 

While the efforts made to stop the child rose selling operations are necessary, sustainable resolutions are not simple. Thailand needs to ratify and implement both UN Conventions on Migrants and Refugees, improve channels for the documentation of migrant workers, rescind harmful work permit policies that see workers tied to one employer, and end corruption among state officials, to name just  a few necessary steps to be taken in addressing trafficking and ensuring the rights of migrants and refugees .

Ultimately this story fits into the simple binary accounts so frequently repeated in discussions of trafficking in persons. There is the evil (usually male) trafficker and the innocent (usually child or woman) victim in need of rescue. The trafficker is arrested and the innocent victim is saved, usually to be reunited with their family and the same circumstances that led to them being trafficked.

It could be argued that the Thai military government took advantage of this narrative on trafficking to show effectiveness in the face of the U.S. TiP Report downgrade and negative media attention.

However, kneejerk reactions are not solutions and we should not be fooled into thinking they are.