Landmark Conviction Brings Justice to International Trafficking Network on Both Sides of the Thai-Cambodian BorderSlavery
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Monday, May 13, 2019 — A Thai judge found a Cambodian national guilty of trafficking five Cambodian victims into forced labour in Thailand’s fishing industry. This landmark conviction marks the successful prosecution of the first forced labour trafficking case that IJM brought forward to Thai law enforcement, and the second conviction IJM has supported surrounding Thailand’s massive fishing industry. It follows convictions across the border in Cambodia of eight of the trafficker’s Cambodia-based accomplices in related IJM cases.
As a Thailand port-based trafficker, Vanna collaborated as a key player within a cross-border trafficking network responsible for transporting hundreds, if not thousands, of Cambodian migrant workers, and selling them to captains and owners of Thai fishing vessels. Over the past two years, IJM supported a group of human trafficking survivors victimized by this network in building sustainable lives of freedom after exploitation and collaborated to bring this case to Thai and Cambodian authorities. IJM partnered with the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) in Thailand to secure Vanna’s arrest in June 2018.
During the trial, the five survivors shared that Vanna had held them in his house in Samut Prakan, Thailand, for several days before brokering their sale onto fishing vessels bound for Malaysian waters. Vanna received large payments for each of the men from the Thai boat owners. The men quickly discovered the traffickers, including Vanna, had deceived them. None of the men received their wages. The boat captains informed them they had to work to pay off their debt, because they had been sold. They often survived on only a few hours of sleep and were forced to work even when sick. Each of the men had their passports confiscated and held. Two of the men were physically beaten, while all of the men experienced emotional and psychological abuse.
This significant event represents the first IJM-supported case to be prosecuted and to result in convictions of trafficking criminals operating on both sides of the Thailand-Cambodia border, a major trafficking corridor into the Thai fishing industry.
Vanna was sentenced to nine years of imprisonment for his role in trafficking the men and conspiring with others to traffic and exploit them. The sentence was reduced to six years for his cooperation during the investigation. The court also ordered Vanna to pay around 500,000 baht in compensation to each victim in the case (approx. $15,000).
In Thailand, prosecutions of cases of forced labour trafficking on Thai fishing boats are rare—and convictions are even rarer. In 2017, the last year in which Thai government data is available, only 2% of trafficking prosecutions in Thailand were in cases of forced labour on fishing boats. And when trafficking cases are successfully prosecuted, the sentences tend to be low: only 33% of trafficking convictions resulted in sentences of longer than 10 years’ imprisonment in 2017.
Additionally, cross-border cases require immense collaboration and coordination across national governments. Pol. Maj. Arit Tatsaphan, Director of DSI’s Bureau of Human Trafficking Crime Division 3, spoke to this challenge: “One challenge presented was communication—communicating with the survivors [based in Cambodia] and following up with them for all of their interviews, due to the fact that the survivors [in this case] are foreigners. To meet this challenge, we received assistance from IJM both in Thailand and Cambodia, particularly in coordinating with Cambodian law enforcement who helped support this case, and in gathering evidence.”
The low number of cases and difficulty in securing a conviction, especially in complicated, cross-border forced labour trafficking cases, highlights the important work still left to do in combatting this crime and the importance of strengthening cross-border collaboration between Thai, Cambodian and Malaysian government authorities.
“This is a landmark case because it underscores that justice for men in the Thai fishing industry is possible, despite a complex, deceptive cross-border trafficking network,” said Andrey Sawchenko, Field Office Director, IJM Bangkok. “We congratulate the Thai and Cambodian authorities, especially our partners in Thailand, including DSI, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. We are hopeful that strong collaboration in this region will protect workers by showing there will be consequences for trafficking.”
This precedent-setting conviction was made possible through investments by the Walmart Foundation and the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Office. The verdict also follows last month’s convictions of a Burmese couple in Thailand, who pled guilty to trafficking a Burmese family of 12, including five children, from their home in Myanmar to fishing ports in Southern Thailand. IJM supported the case alongside DSI, Human Rights and Development Foundation and the Migrant Workers Rights Network, among other partners in the region. Both traffickers were sentenced to 18 years in prison. The survivors are participating in IJM’s aftercare program and have been living in the protective care of the government since their rescue. After assessing their most critical needs, IJM and our partners are working to provide the care they need to stay safe and recover from their ordeal.
“In Thailand, prosecutions of cases of forced labour trafficking on Thai fishing boats are rare—and convictions are not common, making this conviction even more significant,” said Andrew Wasuwongse, Deputy Director at IJM Bangkok. “But there are still thousands of victims forced to work on fishing vessels and in seafood processing centers who are in need of rescue, and are waiting for justice to be served. We are resolved to work together to fight this crime.”
- The third largest import product to Canada from Thailand is meat, fish, and seafood.
- Canada imports over US$390 million worth of fish from countries suspected of having modern slavery in their fishing industries.
- In a 2016 study, IJM worked with the Issara Institute to survey Burmese and Cambodian fishermen and confirmed that trafficking of migrant fishermen on Thai fishing boats is widespread, with common patterns of abuse.
- More than a third had been trafficked in the five years prior to the survey.
- Nearly a third had witnessed a crewmate’s abuse at sea, and one in seven were physically abused themselves.
- A stunning 76.2% accrued debt prior to even beginning work.
Read the first article on this story detailing the arrest of the trafficker, including photos, here.
About International Justice Mission Canada:
International Justice Mission Canada is part of a global organization protecting the poor from violence throughout the developing world. IJM partners with local authorities to rescue victims, bring criminals to justice, restore survivors and strengthen justice systems. Learn more at www.ijm.ca
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 Thailand’s Country Report on Anti-Trafficking Response (1 January – 31 December 2017). Retrieved from: http://www.thaianti-humantraffickingaction.org/Home/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Thailands-TIP-Country-Report-2017-FINAL.pdf
 News of the April 2019 convictions of two Burmese traffickers has also been shared by the Human Rights and Development Foundation on their website.
Canada’s Merchandise Trade from Thailand (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.asiapacific.ca/statistics/trade/bilateral-trade-asia-product/canadas-merchandise-trade-thailand
 Issara Institute and International Justice Mission (2016). Not in the same boat: prevalence & patterns of labour abuse across Thailand’s diverse fishing industry. Retrieved from: https://www.ijm.ca/learn-more/thailand-research/thai-fishing-study