Combating Human Trafficking: A Thai-U.S. Analysis

A trafficking victim shelter for children in Pattaya, Thailand. Photo by Carly Gerbig |

By Carly Gerbig |

Thailand and the United States differ in their systems of government and their culture, demography, and geography. Thailand also has very different policies for combating human trafficking. Despite these differences, the Thai experience with trafficking in persons (TIP) is similar to that of the United States and the international community writ large. In both countries, trafficking is an extremely profitable and low-risk enterprise for criminal networks. Both countries have tens of thousands of victims of trafficking in any given year, yet only a fraction of victims are rescued and adequately cared for. An even smaller fraction of traffickers are prosecuted and imprisoned for their crimes. Both Thailand and the United States are economically wealthier than their neighbors and have high rates of immigration. Worldwide, immigrant and minority communities are among the most vulnerable to exploitation. Despite far more developed anti-trafficking laws and institutions in the United States and Washington’s greater capacity to combat TIP, both Thailand and the United States have significant room for improvement in their trafficking policies, and would mutually benefit from replicating the other’s best practices.

Thailand is one of the most frequented and profitable sex-tourism destinations in the world, bringing in billions of U.S. dollars annually. Prostitution in Thailand can be an extremely lucrative vocation and attracts many voluntary members.[1] However, a substantial portion of Thailand’s sex workers are forced, coerced, or defrauded into entering the sex industry. Victims are often underage and are both male and female. Parts of Thailand are well-known international hubs for pedophilia, especially the eastern seaboard city of Pattaya. The United Nations Children’s Education Fund estimates 30-35% of sex-workers in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and the Yunnan province of China) are children between the ages of 12-17, and, as minors, are automatically considered victims of trafficking.[2]

Sex-work is overt in Thailand, unlike in the United States. The laws against prostitution in Thailand are weak and filled with loopholes. Essentially, prostitution is de-criminalized, meaning sex-workers and customers can engage in transactions openly and will not be penalized (unless a minor is visibly involved). In the United States, prostitution is a crime for all parties to the transaction, but rarely are the “johns” who purchase sex penalized. Because Thailand’s prostitution is de-criminalized, it can be regulated to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. It also prevents victims of human trafficking from going to prison and enduring further trauma from being arrested and interrogated – a significant flaw within the U.S. system.[3] However, because most of Thailand’s prostitution is permissible, law enforcement will rarely take time to investigate whether human trafficking is occurring, unless spurred by a tip or an escaped victim’s testimony. The benefit of criminalization in the United States is that victims are more likely to be rescued (even if interrogated and detained first), and known prostitution networks can be investigated for trafficking and more easily dismantled.

Thailand’s labor-trafficking problem does not receive as much international notoriety as sex-trafficking, but is just as significant. Tens of thousands of migrants from the Greater Mekong Subregion migrate to Thailand for economic opportunities and a better life, but are cruelly exploited in commercial fishing industries, low-end garment production, domestic work, and forced begging. The U.S. State Department estimates that 2 to 3 million migrants reside in Thailand at any given time, and that this population is extremely vulnerable to trafficking: “Foreign migrants, members of ethnic minorities, and stateless persons in Thailand are at the greatest risk of being trafficked… they experience the withholding of travel documents, migrant registration cards, and work permits, as well as withholding of wages and illegal salary deductions by employers. Migrants remain particularly vulnerable to trafficking due to their lack of legal status, low economic position, lack of education, language barriers, and failure to understand Thai law.”[4] Criminals can easily take advantage of immigrants as well as the young, poor, minority, and uneducated segments of the Thai population, and make significant profits from their exploitation with a low-risk of penalization.

Similarly, minority and immigrant communities in the United States are among those most vulnerable to exploitation, in addition to run-away teenagers. Both Thailand and the United States handle migrant trafficking victims by allowing them to stay in the country if they agree to help in the investigation and prosecution of their traffickers. This tactic helps put more traffickers behind bars, but has two regrettable flaws.

First, most trafficking survivors are extremely traumatized and suffer severe mental health disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. Facing their trafficker in court, or even reliving exploitation through the interview and testifying process is a difficult step that prolongs a victim’s recovery. In moving towards a victim-centered approach, providing recovery and safety to a foreign victim should not be contingent upon a victim testifying in front of their trafficker, especially not on an escalated timeline that precludes sufficient recovery.

Second, some trafficking survivors refuse to testify and are deported back to their home countries. “Home” is frequently a place without suitable recovery facilities or adequate protection. Trafficking survivors are often re-victimized because of the systemic economic conditions that led to their initial exploitation. In other cases, the victim’s former traffickers learn of their escape and threaten to kill the victim or their families. Immigrant trafficking survivors in both Thailand and the U.S. can obtain temporary visas and social services while they assist in the prosecution of their traffickers. In Thailand, foreign victims are eventually required to leave the country, potentially returning to a vulnerable situation. Follow-up by the Thai government on repatriated victims is severely limited, so the percentage of victims re-trafficked is unknown. The United States, however, allows victims to apply for permanent residency after three years on the T-visa, a nonimmigrant visa given to trafficking survivors assisting the prosecution, if victims demonstrate the danger of returning to their home country.[5] While both countries prioritize prosecution of traffickers over victim services, the United States provides a more permanent refuge in special circumstances – though the number of T-visas issued each year is unfortunately very minimal.[6]

Thailand and the United States have a growing number of shelters that provide trafficking survivors a safe-haven for rehabilitation. In each country, some shelters are better, or at least better-funded, than others. The best facilities – in any country – provide mental and physical health services, education, basic food and hygienic necessities, daycare, and offer varied vocational training programs that are applicable to the current job market and enable the TIP survivor to earn a livable wage. Most importantly, shelters must provide a place where victims are comfortable and their individual needs are met.

A clear example of a shelter with many of these “best practices” is Thailand’s Development Education Programme for Daughters and Communities (DEPDC). DEPDC’s founder – Sompop Jantranka – has been working to protect vulnerable children in northern Thailand (primarily minority and hill tribe girls) from traffickers for almost 25 years.[7] DEPDC is a preventative program with a school and vocational center that aims to stop trafficking before it occurs. Many of the children at DEPDC were born in dire poverty and were not registered at birth. Without DEPDC, their lack of citizenship would preclude them from attending school, which would make them more vulnerable to exploitation. DEPDC also has two safe homes for particularly vulnerable children, a 24-hour crisis hotline, and a radio and TV station run by young people to raise awareness to the vulnerabilities of trafficking.[8]

One of Thailand’s best practices that others around the world should replicate is its approach to interviewing victims prior to a criminal trafficking trial. Several government-run Thai shelters have an interview room where a trafficking survivor sits with a social worker and provides details about their trafficker and their exploitative experience. The room is painted in bright colors, with a couch and stuffed animals to make the victim feel more secure. It also has a large double-sided mirror that allows lawyers, doctors, psychologists, and other individuals involved to listen to, and view, the victims’ interview. They may also tell the social worker what questions to ask through an earpiece, without the victim knowing of his/her audience. This process, while elaborate, prevents the victim from reliving his/her experience multiple times for each part of the prosecution process. The United States funds programs in Thailand that use this method, yet does not implement the technique itself.

Thousands of TIP victims are bought and sold in Thailand and the United States each year. The United States has more comprehensive laws for dealing with TIP and infinitely more resource capacity than Thailand, but continues to be just as plagued by modern-day slavery as the middle-income country with a booming sex-tourism industry, rampant corruption, and fewer governmental resources directed towards anti-trafficking efforts. Human trafficking is immensely profitable and is likely to continue as long as demand for cheap labor and sexual services continues. The United States has pioneered a TIP awareness campaign over the last 13 years that has brought human trafficking to the forefront of human security issues. Now it is time to reduce human exploitation by sharing information and recommendations across nations on how to most effectively prevent TIP, protect victims, and prosecute criminals. Both the U.S. and Thai governments have much to learn from each other and other international partners in the fight against trafficking.

Ms. Gerbig is an MA candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. 

[1] Christina Arnold and Andrea Bertone, “Addressing the sex trade in Thailand: Some lessons learned from NGOs, part I,” Gender Issues 1 (2002): 26-52.

[2] Deena Guzder. Pulitzer Center, “UNICEF: Protecting Children from Commercial Sexual Exploitation in Thailand,” Pulitzer Center, 20 August 2009,

[3] See also, “Vacating Convictions,” Polaris Project, August 2013,

[4] “Trafficking in Persons Report 2013,” United States Department of State, 19 June 2013,

[5] “Victims of Human Trafficking: T Nonimmigrant Status,” Department of Homeland Security: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, last modified 3 October 2011,

[6] “Form I-914, Application for T-Nonimmigrant Status, Form I-918 – Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status. Receipts, Approvals, and Denials,” Department of Homeland Security: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, last modified March 2013,

[7] Floyd Carmilla, “Sompop Jantranka,” The World’s Children’s Prize, last modified 2013,

[8] Ibid.


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