Thailand Disputes Its Human-Trafficking Designation

    President Obama has 90 days from the release of a State Department report to decide whether to impose sanctions on the ‘tier 3’ country

    By Nopparat Chaichalearmmongkol
    Updated July 28, 2015 12:50 p.m. ET

    BANGKOK—Thailand expressed frustration at being left among the world’s worst countries in a U.S. report on how nations are doing in battling human trafficking, even as Malaysia moved up on the list.

    Thailand’s Foreign Ministry said the report “does not accurately reflect the significant efforts undertaken by the government and its partnership with private sector and civil society in making the tangible progress” on human trafficking.

    In the past year, human-rights groups slammed Thailand for not stopping migrants from being essentially used as slaves on Thai fishing vessels and for the discovery of mass graves near its border with Malaysia believed to contain bodies of migrant workers fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh.

    When Thailand cracked down on human trafficking in May, a humanitarian crisis erupted as smugglers abandoned rickety boats at sea filled with people fleeing persecution or economic poverty.

    In its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released on Monday, the U.S. State Department said Thailand would stay in the worst category for a second straight year, declaring, “The government of Thailand does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, and is not making significant efforts to do so.”

    The report described Thailand as “a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking.”

    President Barack Obama has 90 days from the report’s release to decide whether to impose sanctions on any tier 3 country, including Thailand.

    The U.S. ranks countries in three tiers, with tier 1 reserved for countries with the best records. The U.S. said it boosted Malaysia to tier 2 because it “is making significant efforts.…Malaysia more than doubled the number of trafficking investigations and substantially increased prosecutions.…Malaysia also continued efforts in an expansive prevention campaign that raised awareness about trafficking.”

    Some rights groups expressed dismay that Malaysia’s ranking improved.

    “Malaysia’s record on stopping trafficking in persons is far from sufficient to justify this upgrade from Washington,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch. “Migrants are being trafficked and abused with impunity.”

    Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Tuesday: “The upgrade is a “recognition of Malaysia’s commitment and initiative” in tackling the crime, noting key legislation passed that allows a jail sentence of up to 20 years for human-trafficking offenses.

    Across Asia, only Malaysia’s ranking shifted from last year’s report. China remained at tier 2, while North Korea was at the bottom of the list with Thailand.

    Some analysts said the report was more embarrassing to Thailand than economically damaging.

    Last year, Thailand’s multibillion-dollar exports to the U.S. accounted for around 10% of its total exports, and the level has risen above 11% during the first half of this year.

    “If consumers or NGOs in the U.S. decide to launch a campaign to protest any goods from tier 3 countries, how will that not affect [Thai] business operators and exporters?” asked Amonthep Chawla, head of research at CIMB Thai Bank.

    Paul Chambers, a lecturer in international relations at the Thai-based Institute of South East Asian Affairs, called the report “hand slapping,” adding that it is doubtful the U.S. would impose sanctions on Thailand over human trafficking.

    “The U.S. does not want to blow any sort of economic interests that China can steal,” Mr. Chambers said.

    The report was released as U.S. and other negotiators continued work to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade pact between several Pacific Rim countries that covers economic policy areas including intellectual property, labor law and environmental law.

    Thailand—which is being run by a government set up by military leaders who staged a coup last year—hasn’t joined the pact.

    —Jason Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article.

    Write to Nopparat Chaichalearmmongkol at [email protected]