civil society’s role in the empowerment of human trafficking victims
The year 2015 marked a turning point in the fight against human trafficking in the Thai fishing industry – or so it appeared. A highly mediatized rescue operation of Thai and migrant fishermen in Indonesian waters brought international attention to human trafficking in Thailand. Due to the reporting of four Associated Press (AP) reporters, the efforts of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Indonesian government, and the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), more than 2,000 captives were released from a slave island in Indonesia, a scale not seen before in human trafficking cases. It led to the arrests of a dozen people, the seizure of ships worth millions of dollars, the introduction of legislation in the U.S. Congress to create greater transparency from food suppliers, as well as a threat from the EU to completely ban Thai fish imports.
While the renewed international pressure and attention forced Thailand to enact important reforms to address human trafficking in the seafood industry, this was not the end of the story for the thousands of Thai fishermen who returned home after years, sometimes even decades, of abuse. The Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN), a Thai labor rights NGO based in the port city of Samut Sakhon, Thailand, has witnessed first-hand the numerous obstacles rescued Thai fishermen face after their return home, from their difficulties obtaining justice in the legal system to their negative experiences with government or CSO-administered aftercare programs.
Obstacles in the prosecution process
For one, obtaining a successful prosecution under human trafficking laws in the Thai criminal justice system remains particularly challenging for trafficked persons. Only fifty-eight of the 1,476 Thai fishermen rescued from Indonesia in 2015 pursued a trafficking case, and of these, not one obtained a successful conviction. While government reforms have addressed many flaws in the legal system that posed obstacles to a successful prosecution—for instance by improving identifications and streamlining the evidence collection process—the poor application of procedures continues to disadvantage trafficking victims. The Thai Government only identified 824 trafficking victims in 2016, compared with 982 in 2015. Out of these, only forty-three trafficked victims were identified in the fishing sector. This number is extremely low when compared to the scale of the problem, especially when you consider that there are an estimated 145,000 workers in the Thai seafood sector.
Because of the inherent challenges in mounting a successful trafficking case, the legal system has been unable to provide rescued fishermen with the compensation they so desperately need and rightfully deserve. In our experience, the inability to obtain compensation poses a significant obstacle to reintegration. For victims of trafficking, access to financial compensation is crucial. It helps them to rebuild their lives and prevents them from falling back into the hands of traffickers. It can also go some way to making up for the pain and financial losses they have suffered. ”
Empowerment at the grassroots level
The paternalism of government and CSO-administered reintegration services (e.g. shelter, counseling, legal assistance, medical care, financial aid, victim/witness protection, education, or vocational training) can also hinder trafficked persons’ reintegration. Many of these services continue to be applied in a top-down, non-participatory manner that does not answer trafficked persons’ actual needs and may perpetuate the loss of agency they experienced as victims. Government shelters, for example, can restrict a trafficked person’s freedom, mobility, and employment opportunities, all in the name of witness protection. Not only do these practices discourage trafficked persons from identifying themselves as victims, but they are also in direct contradiction with the very core principles of victim protection, which are intended to safeguard victims’ freedom and rights.
Civil society has an important role to play in working with the government to ensure that the legal system adequately protects the rights of trafficked persons, encourages their participation in the legal process, and ultimately, secures positive outcomes for victims through successful convictions and, above all, adequate compensation. Empowerment is especially critical in the aftercare process as trafficked persons’ ability to ‘gain confidence in their abilities, capacity and strengths underpin reintegration success’. Returned fishermen need ‘to become independent and self-sufficient and to be actively involved in their recovery and reintegration.
Over the past few years, the LPN has developed volunteer watchdog networks comprised of rescued fishermen, many of whom were trafficked and experienced abuse. Volunteer networks such as the LPN’s TMFG (Thai & Migrant Fishers’ Union Group) can be a particularly useful tool for reintegration because they empower survivors by turning them from passive victims to partners in their rehabilitation. This bottom-up approach contributes to a two-way exchange of information that can provide a better understanding of the actual needs of trafficked survivors while helping to inform best practices. Rather than protect survivors at the expense of their empowerment, we believe that CSOs should leverage their experience in the field to develop innovative new reintegration models that support survivors in regaining their freedom, autonomy, and control over their lives.
1. The U.S. State Department, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, p. 365, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/258876.pdf
2. P Nestorova, ‘Slavery: the case for compensation, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/apr/11/slavery-compensation-trafficking-victims
3.T Fomina, ‘Guidelines on Rehabilitation and (Re)integration of Trafficked Persons, A Manual for the Western Balkan Region, La Strada, p. 26, http://lastrada.md/files/resources/3/ARIADNE_Reintegration_manual.pdf
4.R Surtees, ‘Trafficking Victims Re/integration Programme (TVRP) Re/integration of trafficked persons: supporting economic empowerment’, Nexus Institute, 2012, p.23,ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/sites/antitrafficking/files/reintegration_of_trafficked_persons_supporting_economic_empowerment_1.pdf
The U.S. State Department, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, p. 365, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/258876.pdf
P Nestorova, ‘Slavery: the case for compensation, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/apr/11/slavery-compensation-trafficking-victims
T Fomina, ‘Guidelines on Rehabilitation and (Re)integration of Trafficked Persons, A Manual for the Western Balkan Region, La Strada, p. 26, http://lastrada.md/files/resources/3/ARIADNE_Reintegration_manual.pdf
R Surtees, ‘Trafficking Victims Re/integration Programme (TVRP) Re/integration of trafficked persons: supporting economic empowerment’, Nexus Institute, 2012, p.23,ec.europa.eu/anti-trafficking/sites/antitrafficking/files/reintegration_of_trafficked_persons_supporting_economic_empowerment_1.pdf