Malaysia has been upgraded from the lowest tier in the annual human-trafficking report released by the United States, a change that removes a key obstacle to Kuala Lumpur's participation in a landmark trade pact between the US and 11 other Pacific Rim nations.
The move drew accusations that the State Department is trying to sidestep a provision in a recent trade Bill passed by Congress which excludes countries with the poorest human-trafficking records. The Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) grants President Barack Obama fast-track negotiating mandate seen as critical for the completion of the deal known as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
When news of the potential upgrade broke earlier this month, the US government drew harsh criticism and objection from activists and US lawmakers who did not believe there had been sufficient improvement in Malaysia's anti-trafficking laws to warrant an upgrade from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watchlist in the annual report.
The decision dominated the press conference at the release of the report yesterday, with reporters pressing State Department officials on why Malaysia's status was changed in a year when the Rohingya refugee crisis in South-east Asia hit its peak. Under-Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Sarah Sewall denied that the upgrade had anything to do with the TPP, stressing that the report was compiled based on "factual reporting that is gathered during the course of the year".
She added that the State Department remains concerned about human trafficking in Malaysia.
This year, the report noted that the Malaysian government still did not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is “making significant efforts to do so”.
Asked how the discovery in May of mass graves in suspected human-trafficking camps at the Malaysia-Thailand border affected the report, she said the event was not captured in the report as it happened two months after the end of the document's reporting period.
Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday said at the State Department the purpose of the report is not to "scold" or "name and shame", but to "enlighten, energise and most importantly, empower people".
Last year, the Trafficking in Persons report downgraded Malaysia to Tier 3 - the lowest tier and one shared by countries such as Syria and Russia. That report stated that the Malaysian government did not "fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking" and "made limited efforts to improve its flawed victim-protection regime".
This year, the report noted that the Malaysian government still did not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is "making significant efforts to do so". The report said, for instance, that Malaysia had more than doubled the number of trafficking investigations and substantially increased prosecution.
It chided Malaysia for its handling of the Rohingya refugee crisis although it came down harder on Thailand. While it noted that refugees in Malaysia were vulnerable to trafficking, it said some Thai officials were complicit in trafficking crimes. Thailand was kept at the lowest tier.
Singapore, meanwhile, kept its Tier 2 ranking from last year. The report said, among others, that many of Singapore's foreign workers may be vulnerable to trafficking, especially those who have a language barrier or lack access to mobile phones.
Under the TPA passed last month, Tier 3 countries are excluded from trade agreements expedited by Congress. A bipartisan group of 160 members of Congress have been vocal about their opposition to an upgrade, especially if it were done to enable Malaysia to participate in the trade deal.
Their letter to Mr Kerry states: "An upgrade for Malaysia is certainly not merited by the facts we've seen." The letter says if the decision to upgrade Malaysia to the Tier 2 Watchlist was brought about by "external considerations", this would "undermine the credibility of the Trafficking in Persons Report. A decade and a half of progress would rightly be called into question".