The misery of male slavery
Amid despair at the trafficking of women and children, men too are being treated as less than sub-human
The fight against human trafficking has for more than a decade tried to protect women and children, often forgetting that men, too, are victims of "new slavery".
Thailand remains one of the region's busiest human-trafficking centres.
The National Human Rights Commission has looked into the stories of some of these forgotten victims - male migrant workers not recognised as casualties of the trade.
The commission reports that between July 17 and July 19 of 2003, six fishing trawlers with about 100 crew sailed from Tha Chalom in Samut Sakhon province to fish Indonesian territorial waters. Most of the crew were migrant workers and four were younger than 16. None were allowed home leave for three years. The trawlers returned to Thailand in July last year.
Thirty-eight never returned, dying on the job. Two were buried on one of Indonesia's myriad islands and the rest unceremoniously dumped at sea. One more crewmember died shortly upon his return.
Others returned home seriously ill - emaciated, emotionally disturbed and unable to see, hear or walk properly.
A Samut Sakhon Hospital medical report diagnosed the men with serious vitamin deficiencies. They had suffered months without proper food or water, eating only fish.
None have been paid. Yet, they are not considered by law to be victims of human trafficking.
When they demanded compensation their "employers" claimed the men were unknown and said crew employment was the responsibility of trawler skippers. The boat owners refuse to pay until the men can prove they were aboard.
Complicating the issue is the registration of the men under Thai names. They are all Burmese, Mon and Karen migrant workers.
They discovered the labour law in this country does not cover fishermen working outside Thai territory for more than a year.
But, a new memorandum of understanding on Common Guidelines for Concerned Agencies Engaged in Human Trafficking and the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Bill are rays of hope. Men are covered by both documents.
The memorandum was signed last week and broadens the scope of a similar 2003 document. That included "children and women" only in its target groups.
Concerned agencies in 17 northern provinces signed it and it has now expanded to cover men.
The memorandum will bring Thailand and its Social Development and Human Security Ministry up to world standards of protection.
Thailand is regarded as a "country of origin, transit and destination" for trafficking victims.
The government announced in 2004 that combating the trade was a priority. It provided national mechanisms, Bt500 million in funding and operational centres to fight trafficking.
But, as its name suggests, the 1997 Prevention and Suppression of Women and Children Trafficking Act does not help men.
Trafficking goes beyond the sex industry and child labour and many cases involve men, Sub-Committee on Coordination for Combating Trafficking in Children and Women chairperson Saisuree Chutikul said.
The Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Bill is before the National Legislative Assembly.
"[In the draft] we changed the wording from "women and children" to "human trafficking" because we found trafficking involves male victims," Saisuree, one of the world's leading voices in the fight against the trade in people, said.
"I would like to congratulate the government on recent Cabinet approval of the amendment and look forward to a positive outcome in the legislative assembly," said UNICEF's Tomoo Hozumi.
"UNICEF is ready to support implementation once the legislation is enacted."
Nevertheless, women and children continue to be victims of trafficking, both within Thailand and abroad. While victims from this country are declining, people from Burma, Laos, Cambodia and China have replaced them.
Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Tak are transit destinations for these victims. More than 250 routes have been found in these provinces.
Last year in Chiang Mai alone 114 children and women victims were rescued. Almost all were from Burma, according to Rossukon Tariya of the human security ministry in Chiang Mai.
Note: The 17 northern provinces which signed the new memorandum are: Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Kamphaeng Phet, Lampang, Mae Hong Song, Nakhon Sawan, Nan, Phayao, Phetchabun, Phichit, Phitsanulok, Phrae, Lampang, Lamphun, Sukhothai, Uttaradit and Uthai Thani.
Box: The nature of human trafficking
There are five elements to the internationally approved definition
- recruitment; false job offers, kidnapping or the purchase of human beings
- physical transportation of trafficked persons
- physical or psychological coercion and/or deception involved in offers of work
- exploitation of work done as a final objective
- absence of informed consent
Source: International Organisation for Migration (IOM)