Could Thailand become a global people smuggling destination?
This week, Bangkok is playing host to the sixth annual meeting of the law enforcement joint management group on people smuggling.
The group, comprised of senior law enforcement officers from across Asia and the Pacific, are meeting to share ideas on responding to the global challenge of people smuggling. These meetings are of increasing importance to Thailand given that continued economic growth and regional integration are likely to make it an ever more attractive destination for people smugglers.
The global drivers for the irregular movement of people, from human security to economics, are growing, not dissipating. In 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that there were 65.6 million “forcibly displaced people worldwide”, 22.5 million refugees and 10 million stateless people.
Globally, there are some 767 million people living below the poverty line. In Africa alone, there are some 200 million people aged between 15 and 24 and this will likely double by 2045.
While these figures are startling, the fact that in 2016 only 189,300 refugees were resettled highlights the scale of the likely global demand for people smuggling.
Over the last five years traditional smuggling destinations like the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States have progressively tightened their border controls. These changes will inevitably result in the creation of new people smuggling routes.
Long-term economic development has seen skill levels of Thailand’s workforce progressively increase over recent years. At the same time, the demand for cheap unskilled labour has continued to grow unabated. Little surprise then that illegal workers from neighbouring countries flood into Thailand to meet this demand.
For some time Thai immigration and policing efforts have managed to maintain a delicate equilibrium wherein the total number of illegal workers doesn’t appear to have exceeded demand. To be very frank the country has likely managed to benefit economically from this level of irregular migration. However, there are indications that this situation might change.
The continued development of Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) economic integration is set to increase connectivity across the region. In the process facilitating greater legal and, unfortunately, illegal mobility.
The Chinese Belt and Road initiative and Asian Development Bank investments are improving Thailand’s physical connectivity with the region and beyond. The region’s new roads, train lines and ports are making travel quicker and easier.
Thailand 4.0 aspirations of economic prosperity, social well-being, rising human values and environmental protection will further add to its attractiveness as a migration destination.
Even without its new-found connectivity, securing Thailand’s long land and sea borders from illegal crossing has always been a difficult proposition. Little wonder then that transnational organised crime groups have been quick to exploit this for their benefit in terms of smuggling: whether contraband or people.
There are more than enough signs here that the country could face an increase in people smuggling in the near future.
The Thai government will now need to move fast to ensure it can strike the right balance between promoting greater regional integration and border security.
Dr John Coyne is head of the border security programme at Australia’s pre-eminent national security think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He is also lead author of the institute’s “People Smuggling Globally 2017” report. This week, Bangkok is hosting the sixth annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific law enforcement joint management group on people smuggling.