By Alisa Tang
SINGAPORE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Migrant workers who fall prey to human traffickers often avoid reporting their cases to Thai authorities for fear of being incarcerated, leaving them unable to earn money to send home or pay back debts to brokers, a leading activist said on Thursday.
Migrant workers from Myanmar and also Cambodia commonly borrow money to pay recruitment fees to illegal brokers to be smuggled into Thailand or to registered brokers for the paperwork to go legally.
Once they start their jobs, they are often not paid for several months as their salaries are used to pay those debts, leaving them vulnerable to trafficking and broker exploitation.
But Andy Hall, who works with the non-profit Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN) in Thailand, said trafficking victims veer away from seeking help from Thai authorities because they could end up detained in shelters and unable to work until they give testimony against those exploiting them.
"MWRN is reluctant to get involved with anything relating to the official trafficking system because we don't believe that being identified as a trafficking victim is generally beneficial for the worker in the long term," he said.
Contrary to MWRN's findings, Thai government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said Thailand "of course will not detain" migrants who enter the country legally and become victims of human trafficking.
"We will investigate the trafficker, but the victims can go free," he said.
For illegal migrants, he said there's no other way than to detain them.
"If they report to us, they will at least be protected by our officers in terms of proper welfare and food in a compound we have provided," he said.
Hall said almost all the trafficking victims MWRN has met - with the exception of people in desperate psychological situations or severe danger - just want to work, earn money and send money back to their families.
But agency, recruitment and corruption costs, can cause migrants to rack up debts from $400 up to $1,200 just to get started working in Thailand, Hall said.
"That's a huge amount of money for someone in Myanmar who can sometimes be earning as little as a dollar a day," he said on the sidelines of Trust Forum Asia, a slavery and trafficking forum in Singapore hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
MWRN this month worked with Thai authorities to assist nearly 100 workers from Myanmar who came into Thailand legally, were exploited for months and locked up, unpaid or underpaid, on construction sites and chicken and coconut exporting factories.
Of those, 10 men are willing to help with cases against the Thai and Myanmar recruitment agencies or brokers, MWRN said.
But Thai authorities are now holding them in a human trafficking shelter north of Bangkok even though they all have passports and entered Thailand legally late last year.
Hall said entry into such shelters should be voluntary, as it is in most countries, sought by people needing rehabilitation services or feel they are in danger before testifying.
"If it's not voluntary, and you're doing things against people's will, they're going to do whatever they can to not report what they've suffered because they know that if they report it, they'll end up being incarcerated," he said.
"We find that it's a policy that actually undermines enforcement of trafficking law and actually undermines the ability of authorities to prosecute people."
(Reporting by Alisa Tang, additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat in Bangkok, editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)