Thailand has the highest prevalence of modern slavery in Southeast Asia with up to half a million people living in forced servitude, according to a new index by international charity the Walk Free Foundation.
The index, which will be published annually, attempts to measure of the extent of modern slavery country by country, placing a figure on the number of victims subjected to human trafficking, forced labour and debt bondage across the world.
The Index puts Thailand 24th out of the 162 nations and singles it out as a hub of exploitation within the Greater Mekong Subregion, with the 7th largest enslaved population of any country in the world.
Researchers behind the index found victims of modern slavery in Thailand are predominantly migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, while Thai women are particularly vulnerable to trafficking into the forced domestic and sex industries around the world.
The index warns that trafficking of both adults and children in Thailand is problematic, with victims known to be trafficked to countries including China, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Africa and the USA.
It also singles out the labour intensive fishing industry as a unique issue, arguing that the country’s economic prosperity and low levels of unemployment have resulted in a labour shortage filled by migrants susceptible to exploitation.
It estimates 200,000 migrants are working in the Thai fishing industry, with a significant proportion subjected to forced labour and trafficking because of limitations in the regulation of the industry, such as inadequate definitions of territorial jurisdictions.
The research makes several recommendations to government, including a plea that its victim hotline employ bilingual staff to encourage non-Thai speaking victims to use the service.
It praises ministers for making “a significant effort to address the problem of modern day slavery”, but calls for training to help officials recognise the signs of trafficking and modern slavery, free legal representation to allow minority groups to understand their rights, and better data collection on victims, so efforts to tackle the issue can be measured and assessed.
Nick Grono, CEO of the Walk Free Foundation, described slavery as a “scar on humanity”.
“This is the first slavery index but it can already shape national and global efforts to root out modern slavery across the world,” he said. “We now know that just ten countries are home to over three quarters of those trapped in modern slavery. These nations must be the focus of global efforts.”
Professor Kevin Bales, lead researcher on the index, added: “Most governments don’t dig deeply into slavery for a lot of bad reasons. There are exceptions, but many governments don’t want to know about people who can’t vote, who are hidden away, and are likely to be illegal anyway.
“The laws are in place, but the tools and resources and the political will are lacking. And since hidden slaves can’t be counted it is easy to pretend they don’t exist. The Index aims to change that.”
Globally, Mauritania is ranked first on the modern slavery index, with the highest estimated proportion of its population enslaved of any country in the world. The West African country is thought to have 150,000 slaves in a population of 3.8 million. Haiti is in second place, with Pakistan one place below.
Despite this, the index found almost three quarters of the estimated 29.8 million slaves in the world are found in across the wider Asia region.