By Alisa Tang and Beh Lih Yi
KRABI, Thailand/JAKARTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Human rights and migrant groups on Friday slammed the United States' decision to remove Thailand from its list of the worst human trafficking offenders, saying it was premature and sent the wrong signal to the Thai authorities.
Thailand was upgraded from Tier 3, the lowest rating which could trigger sanctions, to Tier 2 in the closely-watched Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released by the State Department this week.
Activists said the upgrade could slow progress to combat people smuggling and slavery in the Southeast Asian nation.
The report noted that "widespread forced labor" in the Thai seafood industry continues and trafficking in the fishing industry "remains a significant concern", although it said there was also increased prosecutions and investigations.
"We are very disappointed at this decision, which does not, in our view, accurately assess the situation on the ground," said Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington-based worker advocacy group.
"Migrant workers are still one of the most vulnerable groups in the country to human trafficking, and Thailand has not shown any indication that it intends to allow migrant workers greater access to fundamental rights that would protect them from exploitation."
The group said forced labor and "pervasive conditions of debt bondage" among migrant workers continued to be reported throughout 2015.
Migrant workers play a key part in Thailand's economy, many of whom work in the food processing and seafood industries.
Bangkok-based Fortify Rights criticized Thailand's treatment of migrants, including its refusal to allow thousands of Myanmar's ethnic minority Rohingya and Bangladeshis who came by boat last year to escape persecution or poverty to land.
"By failing to prioritize the protection of survivors of trafficking, Thailand's actions resulted in an untold number of deaths at sea," Fortify Rights said.
"Thailand has made important strides in recent months but an upgrade for its performance in 2015 is premature and sends the wrong message to the government," added Chief Executive Matthew Smith.
THAILAND SHOULD SHOW COMMITMENT
Another advocacy group, the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation - which has investigated slavery in the Thai seafood industry - echoed the concerns.
"We believe this is the wrong decision at a wrong time," said Executive Director Steve Trent.
Trent said continued pressure is needed and structural problems within the Thai seafood sector must be addressed such as "the powerful economic incentives to use trafficked, bonded, forced and slave labor".
However Andy Hall, a British lawyer and migrant activist, said Thailand had made "some significant improvements" last year and putting the nation on Tier 2 ranking could give authorities the chance to show a commitment to combating trafficking.
"If there is no further significant progress during this one year or if developments backtrack or slow, it could and should be back to Tier 3," Hall said.
Human rights lawyer Preeda Tongchumnum also lauded Thai government's effort in tackling human trafficking but said more could be done, including ratifying the United Nations International Labour Organization convention.
"Without these rights, migrant workers especially in Thailand's biggest export industries remain vulnerable," said Tongchumnum from the Solidarity Center office in Thailand.
In the report, the State Department also downgraded Myanmar to Tier 3, a move described by rights groups as long overdue, while maintaining Malaysia on the Tier 2 Watch List.
"Myanmar's downgrade was expected as trafficking and treatment of Rohingya has gone from bad to worse under the (ruling) National League for Democracy," said Charles Santiago, chair of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a coalition of lawmakers in Southeast Asia.
(Writing by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)