From coastal tourist hot spots like Phuket to the bustling city of Bangkok, Thailand’s booming hospitality and tourism industry offers ample opportunities for gainful employment as well as wholesome enjoyment of the country’s beauty and culture. But amid the glittering array of restaurants, resorts, and salons, vulnerable populations are often targeted and exploited through human trafficking.
Thailand is both a destination, transit, and a source country for trafficked individuals. Trafficking takes on many forms here, and can often be difficult to distinguish from the many legitimate employment opportunities offered by the country’s thriving industries. According to the Global Slavery Index, an estimated 610,000 people were living in modern slavery in Thailand in 2018.
The U.S. Department of State’s 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report upgraded the country to a Tier 2 rating, meaning the government is not fully compliant, but making “significant efforts” to be compliant with the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking. Anti-trafficking partners like NightLight are an important part of the solution.
Types of Human Trafficking In Thailand
There are two primary types of human trafficking defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, and Thailand is home to both of them: forced labor and sex trafficking.
Forced labor, or labor trafficking, involves recruiting, transporting, or harboring people to subject them to various forms of modern slavery. With booming industry comes a great need for labor and services to keep up with demand, and this is true in many areas of Thailand’s economy. Traffickers have seized the opportunity, and labor trafficking is widespread in Thailand’s construction, manufacturing, agricultural, fishing, and service industries, including hospitality. In 2021, 56.3% of trafficking victims identified by the Thai government were victims of labor trafficking*.
Forced labor can take many forms: Men are recruited to work on boats in the fishing industry or in construction, and we tend to see more women forced into domestic servitude or roles like housekeeping in hotels. People are also trafficked out of Thailand, lured by the promise of higher paying jobs in countries across Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Sex trafficking, which involves using force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of commercial sex acts is also prevalent in Thailand. In 2021, 43.7% of trafficking victims identified by the Thai government were victims of sex trafficking*. Although prostitution is illegal in the country, the combination of vulnerable populations and an influx of fun-seeking, wealthier tourists fosters conditions that allow sex trafficking to thrive. Bangkok’s well-known red light districts are hot spots for sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Most victims of sex trafficking in the country are women and girls, but we regularly serve trans individuals as well.
Just like labor trafficking, sex trafficking in Thailand can take many forms. Victims can be employed at legal entertainment venues like karaoke bars or nightclubs but be coerced to engage in illegal prostitution to earn extra money under pressure from family, economic duress, or even a manager at the workplace. They can also be held against their will by a trafficker who forces them into illegal prostitution, sometimes to pay off a debt. Another growing form of sex trafficking we’re seeing in Thailand is women and children who are forced to perform sex acts that are streamed or shared online in the form of photos and videos.
Who is Trafficked in Thailand?
Victims of trafficking in Thailand can be Thai nationals, members of tribal and ethnic minorities living within the country, or people from other countries. Common source countries include Burma, Laos, Cambodia, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, African nations like Tanzania and Uganda, South American nations, and many more. In 2021, 75.4% of individuals who were officially identified as trafficking victims were Thai and 24.6% were from other nations*.
Wherever they’re from, trafficking victims all tend to have one thing in common: economic vulnerability. Many lack job skills, education, or citizenship that would enable them to find employment in their local communities. Trafficking victims are often pressured by families or lured by traffickers who promise high paying jobs in one of Thailand's booming industries.
The country's many restaurants, hotels, and service businesses offer a glittering array of jobs that appeal to many who lack skills but could be easily trained to fill needed job openings.
Victims of trafficking in Thailand can be men, women, or children. In 2021, 63.5% of officially identified victims were female, 36.5% were male, and 47.7% were children*. Children can sometimes be sold by families or sent away under the premise that they will have a “job,” only to be trafficked by their employer.
Once foreigners are trafficked into Thailand, it's common that their identity papers are taken from them and they're forced to pay "fees" related to their transport into the country. Traffickers use tactics like starvation, threats, and violence to force their victims to "pay back" what they "owe" by engaging in forced labor or illegal prostitution. The situation for members of ethnic minorities trafficked within Thailand is often similar because they can lack proper identity documents and are sometimes considered “stateless”.
The Thai nationals we serve at NightLight are more often working in the legal nightclubs and bars, engaging in commercial sex for income. Many women feel pressure to provide for their families and lack the education or training for alternative employment. Shame, social stigma, and financial responsibility then keeps them trapped in a system that exploits them.
Ending Human Trafficking in Thailand
As mentioned before, Thailand’s Tier 2 rating in the Trafficking in Persons Report shows that the government is already making “significant efforts” to eliminate human trafficking. Bringing a complete end to this evil within Thailand will require ongoing and increased commitment to prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnerships.
The Thai government has invested significantly in prevention programs, including increasing funding in 2021 for preventing and suppressing trafficking. Programs include awareness training aimed at preventing child sex trafficking online and raising awareness of trafficking among the general public. The 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report called for increased efforts to prevent labor trafficking among migrant populations by bolstering Thailand’s existing regulations, policies, and governmental agencies that enable the flow of migrant workers into and out of the country for legitimate work. Major improvements could be gained by enforcing laws that require employers to pay wages regularly and cover the recruitment fees that are often paid by migrant workers. Passing new laws that protect employees’ rights to retain possession of their own identity and financial documents would also help prevent some trafficking situations.
Over the years, Thailand has made great improvements in its protection of trafficking victims, but more can be done. Performing more effective, trauma-informed labor inspections and continuing to improve practices that identify victims will help protect people who are trafficked in the country. According to the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, in 2021, the Thai government identified 414 trafficking victims, up from approximately 231 in 2020, and 868 in 2019.
Prosecuting the crime of Human Trafficking quickly and severely is essential for bringing it to an end. The Thai government operates specialized anti-trafficking divisions within the Office of the Attorney General, Bangkok Criminal Court, Department of Special Investigation (DSI), and the Royal Thai Police (RTP). In 2021, the government provided additional training on victim identification, labor trafficking, online investigative techniques, and conducting forensic interviews for immigration officials and police, and enacted a change that requires police assigned to anti-trafficking cases to have at least 1 year of experience in that area of law enforcement.
Finally, anti-trafficking partners like NightLight are an important part of the solution to ending human trafficking in Thailand. NightLight partners with Thai authorities to help identify victims, assist them through the prosecution phase of their cases, and provide holistic recovery programs that help prevent re-trafficking. NightLight also operates the only non-governmental shelter for trafficked adults in the country. Other nonprofits and NGOs within the country serve similarly crucial roles as partners, providing victim identification, medical care, shelter, training, pre-trial support to victims, rescue support, and more.
* Source: 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report, U. S. Department of State