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Is the US undermining efforts to combat trafficking?

Gabriel DomínguezJuly 28, 2015

Despite a recent migrant crisis, Malaysia has been upgraded in a US list of human trafficking offenders, while Thailand says it could further avoid sanctions despite remaining at the lowest tier. DW examines why.

Rohingya migrants stand and sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015 (Photo: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/Afp/C. Archambault

Despite calls by human rights groups and US lawmakers to keep Malaysia on the lowest tier of a list of worst human trafficking centers, the State Department upgraded the Southeast Asian nation to the so-called "Tier 2 Watch List" in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, released on July 27.

The authors of the long-awaited paper - which ranks governments worldwide into one of three tiers based on their efforts to combat and prevent human trafficking, forced labor and other forms of modern slavery - justified the move by saying that while Malaysia "does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, "it is making "significant efforts to do so."

They said that in 2014 the government "consulted with civil society stakeholders to draft and propose amendments strengthening the existing anti-trafficking law and addressing concerns" raised in previous TIP reports. However, the department also pointed out that human trafficking convictions in the Southeast Asian country dropped in the 12 months to March, falling to three from nine in the period covered by the report.

The upgrade comes after a crackdown by Thai authorities on human traffickers - initiated by the discovery of scores of graves in people-smuggling camps near Malaysia's northern border with Thailand - triggered a migrant crisis in the region some two months ago. As many as 8,000 Rohingyas and Bangladeshis were stranded for days on boats in the Andaman Ocean and Malacca Straits without adequate food, water, or sanitation as regional authorities refused to let them come ashore unless their vessels were sinking.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry (R) hosts a State Department ceremony to release "The 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report" in Washington July 27, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Gary Cameron)
The US State Department also took Cuba off its blacklist of countries failing to combat human traffickingImage: Reuters/G. Cameron

US Senators: 'Difficult to fathom'

Although Indonesia and Malaysia eventually decided to grant temporary shelter to the migrants, the crisis led to international scrutiny and outcry over Malaysian efforts to combat human trafficking.

But that's not all. In a letter addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry prior to the release of this year's TIP, 19 US senators expressed deep concern that Malaysia could be lifted from the human trafficking blacklist, arguing that "a premature upgrade of Malaysia would undermine the integrity of the TIP report process and compromise our international efforts to fight human trafficking."

The US lawmakers referred to last year's TIP report which noted that many migrant workers are exploited and subjected to practices indicative of forced labor and that the government made only limited effort to improve its flawed victim protection regime. "In light of those findings, it is difficult to fathom how the State Department could justify upgrading Malaysia given that the country failed to address the problem in the year leading up to the June 1, 2015 statutory deadline for the TIP report's publication," wrote the senators.

Prior to spending last year at Tier 3, Malaysia spent four consecutive years on the Tier 2 Watch List before its waivers ran out and it was automatically downgraded. Now, as Gregory Poling from the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) explained, the country could spend another four years on the watch list as long as it has a plan on paper to improve its protections, avoids a considerable increase in the absolute number of persons trafficked into or through the country, and avoids significant complicity in human trafficking by government officials.

Decision 'lacks credibility'

Many analysts and humans rights groups, however, are of the view that country has not improved enough to warrant an upgrade to Tier 2. Phil Robertson, Asia Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch told DW that Malaysia's record on stopping trafficking in persons "is far from sufficient" to justify the upgrade.

"Migrants are being trafficked and abused with impunity, Rohingya victims' bodies are being pulled from shallow graves at the border and convictions are down this year compared to last year - so how can the State Department call this 'progress'?" said the rights activist.

The US-based organization Human Rights First added that the upgrade undermined President Barack Obama's efforts to address human trafficking concerns. "Without clear evidence that Malaysia has improved its anti-trafficking efforts during the past year, news that the State Department would choose to upgrade Malaysia's TIP report ranking seems out of step with the administration's commitment to lead in ending modern day slavery," said Human Rights First's Amy Sobel.

A similar view was expressed by Melysa Sperber, director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), a coalition of 14 US-based human rights organizations. "The decision to upgrade Malaysia lacks credibility. Allowing political interests to influence how governments are held accountable for this horrendous crime calls into question both the TIP Report's integrity and the United States' commitment to preventing human trafficking."

So why did Washington upgrade Malaysia? Independent Southeast Asia security analyst Zachary Abuza told DW he believes the upgrade was "a totally political decision, and not based on any meaningful reforms or changes in the law in Malaysia. It is completely premature."

Policemen monitor as forensic experts dig out human remains near the abandoned human trafficking camp in the jungle close the Thailand border at Bukit Wang Burma in northern Malaysia May 26, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj)
Last week, Thailand charged 72 people in human trafficking crackdownImage: Reuters/D. Sagolj

The expert argues that even if one were to believe that Malaysia started to get serious about human trafficking, all data for the TIP report is through March 2015. "It is all but impossible to argue that Malaysia had made any reforms at that point. Indeed the mass graves that were found were the result of existing practices, failures to investigate and prosecute, and government complicity, demonstrated through March 2015," said Abuza.

The TPP factor

Many analysts are of the view the real reasons behind the move are rather economic and geopolitical. Malaysia is the United States' 20th largest trade partner, its 17th largest supplier of imported goods, and one of the 12 Pacific Rim nations seeking to finalize in the coming weeks the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, a far-reaching pact pushed by the US - but which excludes China - designed to dismantle tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade and investment between the participant countries

Regarded by some as President Obama's signature foreign and economic policy in the Asia-Pacific, the TPP - which includes countries such as Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile and Japan - could increase world GDP by more than $200 billion. But perhaps more important, Malaysia's upgrade has now removed a potential barrier to the agreement. While the US Congress had approved legislation last month giving Obama expanded trade negotiating powers, it prohibited deals with Tier 3 countries such as Malaysia.

APEC Gipfel China 2014
Malaysia's upgrade has now removed a potential barrier to the TPPImage: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

While it is difficult to say whether the upgrade is linked entirely to the TPP, the timing of the report's release - seven weeks overdue - has certainly drawn criticism: "Upgrading Malaysia to Tier 2 in an effort to benefit trade negotiations calls into question the administration's priorities and will seriously undermine the credibility of these rankings moving forward," said Sobel.

But analyst Abuza says there are other strategic calculations for the upgrade: "Malaysia is currently the rotating chair of ASEAN, and the US is looking to the regional grouping to maintain a unified and strong stance against Chinese island building and aggression in the South China Sea. The US really needs Malaysian support and leadership in this endeavor."

'Tier 3' but no sanctions

Among the countries remaining on the lowest level of the State Department report is Thailand. Downgraded last year, the country has long been considered a regional hub for human trafficking. But perhaps unbeknownst to many is that fact that while a Tier 3 rating would normally trigger a range of sanctions from the US, President Obama waived those sanctions in Thailand's case last year, arguing that US assistance contributes to combating trafficking.

And Thai officials are confident the same will happen this year. "I don't think there will be sanctions because Thailand has done things according to the rule of law, so we can rest easy," Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters a few days ago.

But why? CSIS expert Poling explains that while it is certainly true that some funds are used to tackle trafficking, the list of countries who avoided sanctions suggests that - as in Malaysia's case - larger geostrategic concerns are behind these decisions. "More Tier 3 countries avoided funding restrictions last year than received them, and those that were sanctioned included pariahs like North Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iran," said Poling.

A powerless or engineless boat loaded with Rohingya refugees, moments before it was rescued by Indian Coastguards off Andaman Islands (Photo: Asiapics 2010, near Andaman & Nicobar Islands, India)
Migrants are still being trafficked and abused with impunity, said HRW's Phil RobertsonImage: Asiapics

Seeking better ties

Analyst Abuza is of the opinion the US is simply trying to try to prevent the already dismal bilateral relations with Thailand's military-led government from going further south. "With Thailand's May 2014 coup d'etat and the sharp reversals of media freedoms, rights to association and legal limits on bilateral military cooperation, the US is trying to find places where it can work with the Thai junta."

Analysts disagree, however, on the extent these geopolitical decisions are undermining efforts to tackle trafficking in the region.

Paul Chambers, director of research at the Thailand-based Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs, says that if US refuses to enforce sanctions, then it would seem to be placing geopolitical and business interests above human trafficking concerns.

Analyst Poling, however, argues that no country-to-country relationship is driven by a single factor. "Is human trafficking the number one concern in US-Thai relations? No. But that doesn't mean it is not an issue," he told DW.