As one of the wealthiest nations in the world, Australia, gnashes its teeth over perhaps having to “put up with” a minority government — a system that has served both Germany and New Zealand remarkably well over the years — the annual Trafficking in Persons report from the US State Department should give people some perspective.

The fact that people are for sale anywhere is unspeakable; the fact that the report estimates that globally the industry is worth US$150 billion a year is staggering.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said in the report’s introduction:

“Modern slavery is connected to a host of 21st-century challenges — from environmental sustainability to advancing the lives of women and girls to combating transnational organized crime.

“Wherever we find poverty and lack of opportunity — wherever the rule of law is weak, where corruption is most ingrained, where minorities are abused, and where populations can’t count on the protection of government — we find not just vulnerability to trafficking, but zones of impunity where traffickers can prey on their victims.”

Peoples trafficking brings to mind picture people in chains or people held in basements or dungeons, but it tends to be less obviously dramatic.

In the report, Susan Coppedge, ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, describes the experiences of one of the prosecutions she made as a lawyer:

“… two women were lured to the United States to be nannies in exchange for the opportunity to go to school and earn money to send home. When they got here, their trafficker instead forced them to work for no pay, kept them isolated, held their travel documents, and threatened them with arrest and deportation.

“Even so, the first woman did not know she was a trafficking victim; she ran away, but did not seek help from law enforcement as she feared being arrested. The cycle was repeated when the trafficker lured another woman to replace the first; she only sought help after seeing a television show about trafficking and realized there were laws against such abuse.”

The reports used what was basically a four-tiered system to rank countries on their effectiveness in tackling human trafficking and slavery: three “tiers” (the higher the tier, the worse a country’s rank) and then a tier 2 “watch list”.

Under US law, tier 3 status could trigger non-trade related sanctions, which could lead to restrictions on US foreign assistance. Tier 3 countries could also be denied access to global financial institutions such as the World Bank.

While Australia sits with most other Western nations on the top tier (tier 1), people trafficking does occur here, mainly in the sex industry and via forced marriages that come to light through media investigations and the tireless work of aid groups.

Australia is a “destination country” for trafficked people, mainly women from Asia. Its unclear just how rife the problem is here, but it’s been a constant over the years. Australian Federal Police have made four successful prosecutions for trafficked people since 2004, but there have been no successful sex trafficking prosecutions since 2014.

But the real problem lies with our Asian neighbours, and there is a disturbing number of countries in the report’s lowest rung tier 3 and on the tier 2 watch list, which can lead to a downgrade to tier 3. Thailand has long been in tier 3, which has brought howls of protest from the Thai government.

The industry is inextricably entwined with illegal migration and people smuggling, the horrors of which were revealed in 2015 when hundreds of bodies were found in jungle camps in Thailand close to the Malaysian border. The people involved in this chain of misery are largely the ethnic Muslim Rohingya from the western Myanmar province of Rakhine and neighbouring Bangladesh.

The Thai fishing industry — frozen seafood is one of the country’s still-booming export sectors — has gained infamy in recent years. Illegal migrants are lured onto trawlers and held as effective captives on the boats at sea and in port. Some come to the country as construction workers and are drugged by bosses at “parties”, sold off to the fishing companies or indentured as labourers at tightly controlled processing plants

This year in the region, the controversy has been about Thailand being lifted back from tier 3 to the tier 2 watch list, hardly a goal for most countries but a triumph for Thailand — which says enough.

Thailand’s boost is as much strategic as anything else — ties with Washington have been flatlining since Washington spoke out about the “bloodless” May 2014 military coup, which installed a junta led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, since appointed Prime Minister.

Still, frankly, in cold hard realities of regional engagement, that’s good for Australia. Thailand is one of Australia’s top 10 grading countries — and Australia imports Thai good such as motor vehicles and seafood. It’s worth remembering that the Thai’s legendary practicality extended to the country taking Japan’s side in World War II.

But the nightmare that is people trafficking remains very real and very close to home.

So if you are wondering how you can perhaps do your bit to prevent human slavery, next time you are buying seafood and get tempted by the cheap prawns from Thailand, think again. There’s a good chance they will have been netted on a boat manned by men who are not paid and don’t know when they will be released. If they get sick and die before then, the are simply tossed overboard.

Peter Fray

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