Malaysia failed to increase anti-trafficking efforts in 2015 and remains on the U.S. government’s “Watch List” of countries that “do not fully meet minimum standards” for eliminating human trafficking, the State Department said Thursday.
In issuing its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report 2016, the State Department kept Malaysia on its Tier 2 Watch List, a year after it controversially bumped the Southeast Asian country up to that position from the bottommost Tier 3 rank.
“The Government of Malaysia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” the department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons said in its annual report on the state of human trafficking worldwide.
“Despite these measures, the government did not demonstrate overall increasing anti-trafficking efforts compared to the previous reporting period; therefore, Malaysia is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for the second consecutive year,” the report said.
The country is largely a destination point for men, woman and children from countries in South and Southeast Asia, some of whom end up in forced or bonded labor toiling at palm oil plantations and construction sites, or as domestic workers in people’s homes, according to the report. Among these trafficked foreigners, there are women and a small number of children who are trafficked for sex.
Most of Malaysia’s population of trafficked people is among an estimated 2 million undocumented people in the country, the report said.
“Malaysia initiated fewer trafficking investigations and prosecutions compared to last year, but increased convictions from three to seven. Sentences for convicted traffickers varied, but some were insufficiently stringent,” the report said, adding, among other recommendations, that Malaysia should increase the number of cases of prosecuting and convicting people involved in human-smuggling rackets, “including of complicit officials.”
Malaysian government officials did not immediately issue any statements reacting to the State Department’s report, which was officially released in Washington at 9 a.m. (local time) – Thursday evening in Kuala Lumpur.
In April, Malaysia’s police chief said the country had “always been transparent” and had “never hidden any cross-border crimes from the world, especially when it comes to human trafficking,” the state-run Bernama news agency reported.
“We will continue to go all out to combat human trafficking and cross-border issues,” Bernama quoted Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar as saying on April 16.
The department’s annual report covers the period from April 1 to March 31 of the following year.
But last year’s TIP Report, which covered the last eight months of 2014 and the first three months of 2015, was published before the outbreak of a migration crisis across Southeast Asia and the discovery of jungle graves on both sides of the Thai-Malaysia border in May 2015, which contained the remains of trafficked Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar as well as Bangladeshi migrants.
This year’s TIP report touched on this episode.
“The government questioned several officials after the discovery of mass graves on the Thai border, but did not prosecute any officials during the reporting period for complicity in trafficking crimes,” the report said.
Last year’s migration crisis became full blown when Thailand launched a crackdown on human trafficking rings and imposed a maritime blockade of people-smuggling boats, which forced some 3,000 Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis to come ashore in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia.
On Thursday, the State Department promoted Thailand from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watch List.
Last year’s TIP Report was controversial because Thailand was kept at Tier 3 but Malaysia was moved up to the Watch List. Human rights advocacy groups then criticized Washington for promoting Malaysia as an incentive for Kuala Lumpur to sign on to the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which the Obama administration was then championing.
At the time, officials at State denied the allegations of favoritism for Malaysia, saying that the upgrade was based on an objective analysis of gathered facts.
After the State Department issued its newest TIP report, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned the department’s credibility over its rankings of countries including Malaysia.
“I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the State Department has failed to use this year’s Trafficking in Persons Report to restore credibility to what should be a strong, clear statement of our national values. The rankings given to Malaysia, Cuba and other countries do not match the facts on the ground. To be sure, they do not match with the report’s own accounts of what is going on in those countries,” Menendez said in a news release.
“Malaysia’s unjustified upgrade last year appears to have caused the State Department to irreversibly lower the bar for a country to be removed from Tier 3. I believe that rankings must be based on an objective assessment of the minimum standards in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a country’s efforts to meet them, and the impact that government actions are having on improving the lives of trafficking victims. No other considerations should enter into it,” the senator added.