The US has removed Thailand from its blacklist of the worst nations for human trafficking, despite skepticism from rights groups operating within the country.
The State Department moved Thailand from its list of the worst offenders in its annual report on human trafficking, while acknowledging that the issue remains a significant problem in Thailand.
The State Department pointed to harsher penalties instituted last year for trafficking cases resulting in death and new measures to protect whistleblowers. It also noted the country had done more to prosecute sex trafficking and turn away registered sex offenders travelling to the country for sex tourism.
However, the US called on Thailand to do more to prosecute officials complicit in trafficking, increase efforts to protect victims, proactively prosecute traffickers and improve labour practices.
Thailand remains on a watch list, "which does not mean they don't have a trafficking problem. They do, in Thailand, and it is serious," said Susan Coppedge, the department's ambassador to combat trafficking.
Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) welcomed the news and stated that the US recognised, “Thailand’s determination and progress in its fight against human trafficking over the past year.”
“Even though Thailand has been upgraded, we will not be complacent and will continue to work with all stakeholders in the bid to end human trafficking around the world,” the ministry's statement said.
Despite the MFA's assurances that the fight against trafficking would continue, 19 human rights groups operating in Thailand, including Anti-Slavery International and Fortify Rights, released a joint statement questioning the country’s upgrade to the Tier 2 Watch List.
"We believe the Tier 2 Watch List ranking does not accurately reflect the Thai Government’s lack of significant progress in the past year,” the rights groups' statement said.
"We believe easing pressure on the Thai government ... could delay it from making the actual changes in courtrooms, migration corridors, and workplaces required to really address the problem of human trafficking.”
Myanmar was added to the list of worst offenders, as was Djibouti, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Suriname, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The US described Myanmar as a "source country" for forced labour and sex trafficking. It also pointed to an increased risk for trafficking among minority groups, the use of child soldiers in conflict-prone areas and the use of forced labour by the military, civilian officials and ethnic armed groups.
"The government of Burma does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period," the report said, using another name for Myanmar, where the US resumed diplomatic ties under the Obama administration after years of isolating the country's former military regime.
It was downgraded because it had been on the State Department's watchlist for four years, which requires a mandatory downgrade under the rules of the report.
Thailand and Kuwait were shifted to a watchlist after last year being listed among the worst offenders.