BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's military government says it made progress in fighting human trafficking in 2016, aiming for a favorable review from the U.S. State Department in its annual report on modern-day slavery.
The Foreign Ministry said Thursday that 268 people were convicted of human trafficking during the year, the highest number since the government began instituting tougher policies in 2014.
"No matter which government would like to inspect us, if they look at our efforts for the past three years, they should have a good feeling," Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said at a news conference.
Thailand has come under heavy scrutiny in recent years. In 2014, the U.S. demoted Thailand to "Tier 3" status, the lowest category indicating a failure to combat trafficking. A March 2015 report by The Associated Press and other investigations have showed continued slavery and labor abuses in Thailand's fishing industry.
Officials say they have made efforts to enact new legislation, prosecute trafficking cases more stringently and provide more support for victims.
"Even though there are still a few remaining challenges and some work to do, we have made significant progress," said Songsak Saicheua, a Foreign Ministry official overseeing relations with the Americas.
The ministry said 824 victims of human trafficking were identified in 2016, down from 982 in 2015. It said 333 people were investigated, up from 317 in 2015, and 268 were convicted, up from 205 in 2015.
Last June, the State Department upgraded Thailand to "Tier 2," signifying governments that do not fully meet minimum standards on human trafficking but are making major efforts to do so. The move provoked widespread criticism from rights groups, which said the country had not done enough to deter and prosecute trafficking.
But the groups now say the government is making stronger efforts to improve, though it's unclear how effective they will be.
"Thailand is clearly trying to do a lot to deal with the human trafficking issue, and has outshone its neighbors in the efforts being made. No one doubts their energy," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "The issue is efficacy. Will the things they're doing here protect vulnerable migrants from human trafficking?"
Thailand will submit a summary of its progress to the State Department for its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which assesses the efforts of 188 countries. The report is expected to be released in June.