US Upgrades Malaysia on Human Trafficking Report Card

Imran Vittachi
150727_MY_TIP_620.jpg A Malaysian man stands inside a mass grave during the re-burial of remains of human trafficking victims in Kampung Tualang, in Malaysia’s Kedah state, June 22, 2015.

Updated at 3:47 p.m. ET on 2015-07-27

The U.S. State Department on Monday promoted Malaysia from the bottommost rank in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, despite objections from human rights advocates who argued that Malaysia didn’t earn an upgrade.

“The Government of Malaysia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” said the report, which the State Department released Monday morning (Washington D.C. time).

Malaysian Ambassador to the United States Awang Adek Hussin welcomed the news, saying it was “a good omen” for his country.

“The Malaysian government has taken serious steps in addressing human trafficking, including amending the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (ATIPSOM) Act of 2007, arresting those believed to be involved in human smuggling syndicates, and also giving freedom to the victims of human trafficking syndicates,” he told BenarNews.

Last year, the State Department relegated both Malaysia and neighboring Thailand to Tier 3, the lowest ranking that can trigger sanctions against a given country. This year’s report keeps Thailand on Tier 3.

Thailand is infamous as a transit point for the smuggling into Malaysia of Rohingya Muslim migrants from Myanmar, who often embark from Bangladesh on illicit and perilous sea journeys.

The annual TIP report ranks 188 countries, including the United States, on how they deal with human trafficking, and assigns them one of four rankings: Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 2 Watch List and Tier 3. Indonesia, Bangladesh and India all stayed at Tier 2.

In a statement, Malaysian Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the upgrade was “recognition [of] Malaysia’s on-going efforts and commitments in combating this heinous crime.”

Purely factual: State Department

In Washington, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall denied that Malaysia’s promotion was tied in any way to its participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, which requires signatories to meet minimum human rights standards.

“Our concern is really about the TIP report facts,” Sewall told reporters.

Malaysia’s TIP report card was based on how the country had performed in prosecuting traffickers, protecting victims and preventing people smuggling, according to Sewall.

The report did not take into account graves of illegal migrants found at abandoned people-smuggling camps along the Thai-Malaysia border in May, because TIP’s annual reporting period ends in April.

“The tragic smuggling situation that came to light at the end of the reporting period is certainly a core concern that we have as a matter of U.S. foreign policy, in addition to being a concern for any future reporting that’s done,” Sewall said.

According to the report, the government increased investigations and prosecutions of human trafficking cases, but those resulted in only three convictions. That represented “a disproportionate number of convictions compared to the large scale of the human trafficking problem in Malaysia,” the report said.

‘We have corrected everything’: Thai PM

The TIP report was more critical of Thailand.

“The Government of Thailand does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, and is not making significant efforts to do so,” the report said.

It noted that the corruption and complicity of some Thai officials in people-smuggling rackets continued to impede and undermine anti-trafficking efforts.

On Friday, Thailand moved to indict 72 people allegedly connected to a trafficking scandal that broke after graves of suspected illegal migrants were uncovered in the jungles of southern Songkhla province, near the Malaysian border, in early May. The 72 suspects include a Thai army general and more than a dozen other government officials.

Before the State Department released its report, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told reporters at Government House in Bangkok that Thailand’s recent crackdown on human trafficking could be reflected in next year’s TIP report.

“Until now, we have corrected everything and made it better,” Prayuth said. “But it’s up to them whether they trust our efforts.”

Mixed reviews

Human rights groups praised the State Department for keeping Thailand at the bottom of its TIP ratings. But they slammed the U.S. government’s foreign policy arm for promoting Malaysia, saying this was done to clear the way for the Southeast Asian nation vis-à-vis the TPP trade deal.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) was among 25 groups that sent a joint letter on Monday to Secretary of State John Kerry that commended TIP’s rating of Thailand.

“The State Department’s decision will keep pressure for substantive changes by Bangkok,” the letter said.

But, separately, HRW ripped the decision to upgrade Malaysia in the TIP rankings.

“Malaysia’s record on stopping trafficking in persons is far from sufficient to justify this upgrade from Washington …. The report's Malaysia discussion is full of what can only be called the State Department fudge factor, a triumph of diplomatic writing trumpeting process rather than real impact,” HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said in a statement.

“This upgrade is more about the TPP and U.S. trade politics than anything Malaysia did to combat human trafficking over the past year, but sadly this action also does significant damage to the credibility of a report that is a critical part of global efforts  to combat slavery,” he added.

In Malaysia, opposition MP Charles Santiago did not hold back in expressing disdain for the promotion.

He called it laughable, saying it was obviously “motivated by business and trade interests” and would allow Malaysia to sign onto the TPP.

“One can only conclude that the TIP 2015 report was designed to promote U.S. trade and geo-political interests,” said the lawmaker, who chairs the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

“And in my view the report best serves as toilet paper as from now on no government will take the TIP report seriously.”

Nani Yusof and Puangpetch Sisutcharit contributed to this report.


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