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US Gives Malaysia Questionable Upgrade in Human Trafficking Ranks

Malaysian officials provide Muslim burial to 21 human trafficking victims, believed to be Rohingya Muslim refugees, found in shallow graves in jungles bordering Thailand, in Kedah, Malaysia, June 22, 2015.

Malaysian officials provide Muslim burial to 21 human trafficking victims, believed to be Rohingya Muslim refugees, found in shallow graves in jungles bordering Thailand, in Kedah, Malaysia, June 22, 2015.

Malaysia moved up one notch to the second tier of the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report covering 188 governments despite objections from human rights campaigners and a substantial portion of the U.S. Congress.

The Obama administration “elevated politics over the most basic principles of human rights,” said Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from the state of New Jersey, who, in a statement, vowed to use hearings and legislation to challenge the upgrade, which is seen as removing a barrier to the country’s participation in the U.S.-led 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Final negotiations on the trade pact began Tuesday in Hawaii.

“I don't really see a very strong reason why Malaysia should be given an upgrade whereas Thailand doesn't,” opposition Malaysian lawmaker Ong Kian Ming told VOA. “So I think Senator Menendez and his colleagues should be listened to and I hope more information comes out during whatever Senate hearings they may call.”

One hundred sixty members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 18 U.S. Senators had written to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to keep Malaysia on Tier 3.

Congress approved legislation in June giving President Obama expanded trade negotiating powers but prohibiting deals with Tier 3 countries.

At a briefing on Monday at the State Department, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, Sarah Sewall, skirted questions from skeptical reporters about whether there were political considerations with Malaysia’s upgrade.

The report’s rankings “are pursuant to each country’s progress” and Tier 2 means “there’s still much room for improvement” to be made by Malaysia, Sewall responded.

She noted that the discovery in May of mass graves along the Thai-Malaysia border came after the deadline for the report. The bodies were those of migrants apparently being smuggled from Bangladesh and Myanmar.

'Fudge Factor'

The 2015 report declares Malaysia made “significant efforts” to comply with TIP standards by increasing investigations and prosecutions. But it also expresses concern for the disproportionately low number of convictions compared to the large scale of the human trafficking problem in the country.

A former U.S. Ambassador to Malaysia characterizes the TIP report's Malaysia evaluation as contradicting itself.

"It almost gives the impression that somebody just decided well, we have to use the terminology, 'significant effort,' because that's the legal requirement [for an upgrade]," John Malott told VOA. "But it's not supported by the words that they use, the statistics that they use or the facts that they used in their own narrative.”

The report's Malaysia section "is full of what can only be called the State Department fudge factor, a triumph of diplomatic writing trumpeting process rather than real impact,” said Phil Robertson, the Asia division deputy director of Human Rights Watch. “This upgrade is more about the TPP and U.S. trade politics than anything Malaysia did to combat human trafficking over the past year.”

Malaysia’s upgrade from Tier 3 “also does significant damage to the credibility of a report that is a critical part of global efforts to combat slavery,” Robertson added.

Thailand Rating Unchanged

Thailand, as expected, remained one of 23 countries — including North Korea — placed on the bottom rung.

Thailand said it “strongly disagrees” with the U.S. decision to keep it on Tier 3.

The report “fails to take into account significant efforts undertaken by the Thai Government on all fronts during the past year,” according to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement.

Just days before the release of the latest TIP report Thai authorities announced 72 trafficking suspects already in custody are to be indicted on related charges while warrants have been issued for the arrests of 45 additional people.

Action taken after March 31 will be covered in next year’s TIP report.

A coalition of 25 non-governmental organizations, including the Environmental Justice Founding, Fortify Rights, Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch, lauded the State Department's decision to maintain the kingdom's Tier 3 ranking, saying it “reflects an accurate assessment of Thailand’s efforts to combat human trafficking and will serve as a powerful incentive for Thailand to take further steps.”

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, after the report's release, called on the Thai government “to hold officials complicit in trafficking accountable and rigorously investigate and prosecute individuals, including those who commit forced labor abuses on fishing vessels or who commit sex trafficking crimes.”

Human trafficking is a sensitive topic for Thailand and for some of its largest conglomerates involved in agriculture and the marine industry, which annually export 200,000 tons of seafood.