WASHINGTON • The United States is upgrading Malaysia from the lowest tier on its list of worst human trafficking centres, according to US sources, a move that could smoothen the way for an ambitious US-led free-trade deal with the South-east Asian nation and 11 other countries.
The upgrade to so-called "Tier 2 Watch List" status removes a potential barrier to United States President Barack Obama's signature global trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
A provision in a related trade Bill passed by Congress last month barred - from fast-tracked trade deals - Malaysia and other countries that earn the worst US human trafficking ranking in the eyes of the US State Department.
The upgrade follows international scrutiny and outcry over Malaysian efforts to combat human trafficking after the discovery near its northern border this year of 139 graves in people-smuggling camps used by suspected smugglers and traffickers of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.
The US State Department last year downgraded Malaysia in its annual Trafficking in Persons report to Tier 3, alongside North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe, citing "limited efforts to improve its flawed victim protection regime" and other problems.
However, a congressional source with knowledge of the decision told Reuters on Wednesday the administration had approved the upgraded status. A second source familiar with the matter confirmed the decision.
Some US lawmakers and human-rights advocates had expected Malaysia to remain on Tier 3 this year given its slow pace of convictions in human-trafficking cases and pervasive trafficking in industries such as electronics and palm oil.
This year's full State Department report is expected to be released next week.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said the report was still being finalised and that "it would be premature to speculate on any particular outcome".
Mr Obama visited Malaysia in April last year to cement economic and security ties.
Malaysia is the current chair of the 10-nation Asean. It is seeking to promote unity in the bloc in the face of China's increasingly assertive pursuits of territorial claims in the South China Sea, an object of American criticism.
Malaysia hopes to be a signatory to TPP, which would link a dozen countries, including Singapore, cover 40 per cent of the world economy and form a central element of his strategic shift towards Asia.
On June 29, he signed into law legislation giving him "fast-track" power to push ahead on the deal, which Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb said yesterday could be concluded in the "next three to four weeks" when the 12 countries meet.
Lawmakers are working on a compromise that would let Malaysia and other countries on a US black list for human trafficking participate in fast-tracked trade deals if the administration verified that they have taken concrete steps to address the most important issues identified in the trafficking report.
Mr Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said he was "stunned" by the upgrade.
"They have done very little to improve the protection from abuse that migrant workers face," he said. "This would seem to be some sort of political reward from the United States."
Malaysia has an estimated two million illegal migrant labourers, many of whom work in conditions of forced labour under employers as well as recruitment companies in sectors ranging from electronics to palm oil to domestic service.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE