The US State Department has taken Malaysia and Cuba off its blacklist of countries failing to combat human trafficking, but has kept Thailand and Russia on it. Critics say that the move might be politically motivated.
On Monday, the US State Department released its assessment of how 188 governments around the world have performed in fighting forms of exploitative or forced labor.
According to the report, more than 20 million people were believed to be affected by human trafficking globally in industries such as mining, construction, the sex trade, and domestic service. The State Department's report ranks nations based on the actions their governments take against human trafficking rather than on the scale of the problem in their countries, which can cause unexpected diplomatic issues.
The Trafficking in Persons Report is one of several annual assessments issued by the State Department on human rights-related topics. Among the 23 nations stuck at the lowest tier in the 382-page report were North Korea, Russia, Iran, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Algeria, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela. Russia and Thailand also remained on bottom of the list, while Malaysia, China and Cuba were upgraded.
Cuba had previously been stuck on the lowest ranking, "tier 3," for several years amid long-running allegations of coerced labor with Cuban government missions abroad. Its upgrade came a week after the US and Cuba formally restored diplomatic relations after a half-century of estrangement.
Malaysia versus Thailand
Malaysia's upgrade came ahead of a widely-anticipated Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement between the US and its 12 trading partners in the Pacific Rim region, following years of negotiations. With Malaysia being one of the signatory states of US President Barack Obama's economic plan for Asia, the southeast Asian country's ranking was regarded as contentious against the background that the president's ability to secure free the trade agreement with countries assigned to tier 3 would be limited.
Malaysia's upgrade to 'Tier 2' came despite the recent discovery of mass graves belonging to Rohingya refugees
Meanwhile Thailand - downgraded alongside Malaysia last year particularly because of pervasive labor abuses in the fishing industry - remained on the blacklist. The move might add to the growing strains in once-strong relations between Washington and Bangkok. Thailand is not part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
The report's release came just two days after Thailand indicted 72 people, including 15 state officials, over suspected links to human trafficking. Their arrests resulted from what Thai police called their biggest-ever investigation "modern-day slavery," the term used throughout the State Department report.
But the US government's decision to keep Thailand on its list of worst human trafficking centers for an unprecedented two straight years further highlighted the suspected role of Thai officials in the illegal trade despite government efforts to stop it.
According to the State Department, Thailand's failure to investigate and prosecute officials suspected of complicity in human trafficking was one of the reasons it was not upgraded.
More than 20 million affected
US President Barack Obama now has 90 days to determine whether to apply sanctions against tier 3 governments. He could block various types of aid and withdraw support for loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), though this rarely has happened in the past.
According to the International Labour Organization, trafficking in persons represents a $150 billion-a-year industry (135 billion euros), including $99 billion ($90 billion) for the sex industry alone.
ss/kms (Reuters, AP, AFP)