BANGKOK, Aug 6 (AFP) - Thailand announced a war on human trafficking Friday, with Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra comparing those implicated in the global scourge to murderers leading their victims to a life of hell.
The campaign comes almost two months after the United States put Thailand on a human trafficking watchlist for its failure to make progress in stamping out the illegal trade.
"Human trafficking is cruel and equivalent to murder," said Thaksin, describing how thousands of poor people in the Mekong
sub-region were being tricked into lives of virtual slavery by trafficking gangs.
"They (victims) are only seeing the heavenly tip of the iceberg, but the hell part is much bigger," he said at a national conference on trafficking.
The United Nations says up to one million people, mainly women, are trafficked globally each year, generating some seven billion dollars in annual profits for criminal gangs involved in the trade.
Thaksin pledged that Thailand would overhaul laws, create a special police taskforce, improve protection for victims, boost preventative education, forge greater local and international coordination and weed out corruption among politicians and police.
"If border police are corrupt that is the end of the matter and this ... is a waste of time," said a defiant Thaksin, adding that without effective and transparent enforcement any move to toughen penalties would be meaningless.
Thaksin said new legislation, yet to be signed into law, would more clearly define human trafficking and separate traffickers from their victims who are often reluctant to testify because of harsh treatment under current laws.
Some 500 million baht (12 million US dollars) would be set aside to care for and treat trafficking victims, he said.
Social Development Minister Sora-at Linparatoom said Thailand's role as a country of destination, transit and origin of victims meant it was pivotal to stemming the regional scourge.
"This government ... has declared war against human trafficking as seriously as it did in its declaration of war against drug trafficking," said Sora-at, referring to a controversial narcotics crackdown which saw more than 2,000 people killed.
The UN was highly critical of Thailand's drug war, but on Friday threw its support firmly behind the new initiative.
"The response is pragmatic and focuses both on law enforcement and human rights of victims," said the head of the UN's regional human trafficking program Philip Robertson.
"First and foremost human trafficking is a human rights abuse and when we talk about rights violations the first response should be to help the victims, then we must focus on how to stop it from taking place," he said.
Robertson said the depth of the strategy would be the most crucial element of its potential success.
"There is a recognition that it's not a problem that lends itself to one-dimensional solutions and also that it's critical for Thailand to cooperate with its neighbours and to better educate police," he said.
Thai police General Amnouy Phetsiri said better police training, coupled with clearer laws targeting trafficking, would be a key factor in the new strategy.
"They need to know how to work appropriately with victims who have suffered physical and psychological harm," said Amnouy, adding that officials are currently hamstrung because there is "no direct law or definition on human trafficking."
Friday's announcement comes ahead of a regional pact to fight trafficking that is expected to be signed between Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam when ministers meet in Yangon in October.