The Cable

Critics Question U.S. Motives for Upgrading Malaysia’s Human Trafficking Record

Human rights groups and Capitol Hill insiders blasted the Obama administration on Monday for taking Malaysia off its blacklist of countries with the worst human trafficking records.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 4:  U.S. Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall introduces a panel discussion about Open Government Partnership during the Civil Society Forum at the National Academy of Sciences as part of the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit on August 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. The event brings together U.S. and African government leaders, members of African and U.S. civil society and the diaspora, and private sector leaders, focusing on using the knowledge and experience of citizens and civil society to solve the key challenges of our time.  (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 4: U.S. Under Secretary of State Sarah Sewall introduces a panel discussion about Open Government Partnership during the Civil Society Forum at the National Academy of Sciences as part of the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit on August 4, 2014 in Washington, DC. The event brings together U.S. and African government leaders, members of African and U.S. civil society and the diaspora, and private sector leaders, focusing on using the knowledge and experience of citizens and civil society to solve the key challenges of our time. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)

Human rights groups and Capitol Hill insiders blasted President Barack Obama’s administration on Monday for taking Malaysia off its blacklist of countries with the worst human trafficking records — a decision that may help pave the way for a massive free trade deal with the Southeast Asian country and 10 other nations.

This year’s State Department annual report on “Trafficking in Persons,” or TIP, upgraded Malaysia to “Tier 2 Watch List” status, indicating that the country is “making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance.”

Just last year it was ranked as a “Tier 3” country alongside noted human rights abusers like Zimbabwe and North Korea. At the time, the State Department recommended that the country modify its anti-trafficking regulations, increase the number of prosecutions and convictions of violators, and ramp up efforts to identify and protect trafficking victims.

On Monday, anti-trafficking groups rejected the notion that Malaysia has demonstrated significant progress on any of those fronts.

“How can the State Department call this progress?” Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, told Foreign Policy. “Migrants are being trafficked and abused with impunity … and convictions are down year on year.”

Melysa Sperber, director of the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a coalition of 14 U.S.-based human rights organizations, also questioned the move. “Malaysia demonstrated virtually no progress in addressing major human rights violations,” she said. “In fact, more egregious incidents of forced labor, mass graves, and slave camps have emerged in recent months.”

The Malaysian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.

Around the world, some 20 million people are thought to be impacted by human trafficking and modern day slavery in industries as diverse as construction, housecleaning, the sex trade, and mining. The annual TIP report routinely causes diplomatic headaches for the State Department because it ranks individual nations and is often highly critical of U.S. allies, especially in Southeast Asia.

When asked about Malaysia’s upgrade during a press conference on Monday, a top State Department official on human rights defended the decision.

“Malaysia’s Tier 2 Watch List ranking indicates that there is still much room for improvement in the government’s anti-trafficking efforts, and we’re going to continue to encourage Malaysia … to make tangible progress,” said Sarah Sewall, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights.

The new report has a political dimension in the United States as well. This week, trade ministers representing 12 countries are meeting in Hawaii in an effort to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive 12-nation trade deal that is a key pillar of Obama’s Asia policy.

During the press conference, Sewall dodged a question about whether trade considerations played a role in Malaysia’s upgrade, given its membership in the club of TPP countries. Malaysia’s status as a hub of human trafficking has been of particular interest in recent months because of an amendment passed by Congress that limits the White House’s ability to forge trade agreements with Tier 3 countries.

Earlier this month, 19 senators demanded that Secretary of State John Kerry keep Malaysia on the Tier 3 list, and in a separate letter, 160 lawmakers in the House issued similar concerns. Many of the administration’s biggest critics include Democrats who are skeptical of TPP, due to concerns about job losses and reduced wages. “There is no question that this is a manipulation of the report for political ends,” charged a Democratic congressional aide speaking to FP.

Defending the progress made by Malaysia, a country of 30 million people, Sewall said, “The government made efforts to begin reforming its victim protection regime, along with its legal framework.”

She added that, “Authorities also increased the number of trafficking investigations and prosecutions compared to 2013.”

Still, a reading of the report illuminates the depth of the problem for Malaysia, which has become a destination and a transit hub for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Most of Malaysia’s trafficking victims are its most vulnerable inhabitants: the roughly 2 million documented and more than 2 million undocumented foreign workers from Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian countries.

While Malaysia more than doubled the number of trafficking investigations from 2013, the report says the government “obtained only three trafficking convictions — a disproportionate number of convictions compared to the large scale of the human trafficking problem in Malaysia.”

Robertson, the human rights advocate, said Malaysia’s upgrade could jeopardize the credibility of the TIP report for years to come. “This upgrade is more about U.S. trade politics than anything Malaysia did to combat human trafficking over the past year, but [it] does significant collateral damage to the credibility of this report,” he said.

Photo credit: Pete Marovich/Getty Images

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