Thailand says 100 held in trafficking blitz on seafood industry ahead of EU ban decision

General Prayuth Chan-ocha has personally ordered a crackdown on IUU fishing in the wake of the EU's 'yellow card.' [Wikipedia]

Thai police said Monday over 100 people have been arrested in a crackdown on human trafficking since the European Union threatened to boycott the country’s multi-billion dollar fishing industry over the issue.

The EU hit Thailand with a “yellow card” warning last April, threatening to ban all seafood exports unless the military government tackled rampant illegal fishing and labour abuses among its fleets.

A delegation from Brussels visited the kingdom last month to assess progress but did not say when it would reach a decision on the boycott, which could cost Thailand $1 billion annually.

>>Read: EU to decide on Thai seafood ban

Thailand is the world’s third largest exporter of seafood – a status that rights groups say is achieved through overfishing, and a reliance on low-paid trafficked workers from neighbouring countries, such as Myanmar and Cambodia.

It is desperate to avoid any costly sanctions on the fishing sector.

A spokesman for the Thai embassy in Brussels told EURACTIV that Thailand was “committed to combat illegal fishing and to preserve the marine resources for our future generations”, pointing out that Thai authorities have now inspected some 8,398 fishing vessels operating in Thai waters, and that nearly 94% of fishing vessels have now installed a “Vessel Monitoring System.”

The Thai cabinet has also approved measures to ensure the legal minimum age for working in the industry is 18, and promised to expedite the judicial process for human trafficking cases, he said.

Police insist they have ramped up efforts to straighten out the industry.

Since the EU “yellow card” more than 100 people have been arrested over labour abuses and trafficking and around 130 freed from vessels and factories, according to police figures.

“These cases show that Thailand has a strong political will to deal with the issue of human trafficking,” deputy national police spokesman Colonol Krisana Pattanacharoen told reporters. 

>>Read: Thai junta promises illegal fishign crackdown ahead of EU ban decision

Rights groups accuse Thai officials of allowing people-trafficking to flourish in exchange for hefty bribes. Trafficking survivors freed from Thai fishing fleets have told grim tales of horrendous working conditions, beatings and even killings at sea.

The Environmental Justice Foundation, a British NGO that has worked with the Thai government to address its fishing woes, says there have been positive changes in fishing legislation. 

But concerns remain that police mainly target low-level smugglers. “A very simple benchmark for real progress will be when you start seeing senior Thai figures in courts going through a process of a successful prosecution for their role,” the foundation’s executive director Steven Trent told AFP.

Later this year, Thailand will also face renewed assessment of its anti-trafficking efforts by the US government, which has given the country the worst possible rating in a annual trafficking report two years in a row.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha and the Thai military deposed the democratically-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014.

The government has promised a lengthy process of constitution-drafting before any return to elections in 2017, at the earliest.

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