US Drops Malaysia to Lowest Tier in Human Trafficking Report

John Bechtel
US Drops Malaysia to Lowest Tier in Human Trafficking Report Foreign workers who lack valid documents board an Immigration Department truck to be taken to the agency’s headquarters in Putrajaya, Malaysia, June 7, 2021.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

The U.S. State Department on Thursday relegated Malaysia to the bottommost Tier 3 in its latest annual report assessing efforts by countries worldwide to combat human trafficking, saying Kuala Lumpur did not convict officials suspected of complicity in related crimes.

Malaysia’s next-door neighbor, Thailand, was demoted to the Tier 2 Watch List – a notch above Tier 3 – dropping from Tier 2 in the department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which covers 188 countries.

Bangladesh and Indonesia stayed at Tier 2 and the Philippines remained at the top level, Tier 1, in the report delivered by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“Trafficking in persons is an appalling crime. It’s a global crisis; it’s an enormous source of human suffering. By its nature, it’s often hidden from view,” America’s top diplomat said as he released the Biden administration’s first TIP report.

Estimates put the number of human trafficking victims at nearly 25 million worldwide, he noted.

“This crime is an affront to human rights; it’s an affront to human dignity. We fight it, you fight it, because it’s the right thing to do,” Blinken said.

“It’s also in our interest to stop trafficking. We know it’s destabilizing to societies and to economies. So we must do everything we can as a country, but also as a global community, to stop trafficking wherever it occurs.”

In its chapter on Malaysia, the more than 600-page report faulted the Southeast Asian country for not doing enough to put officials implicated in human trafficking behind bars.

“Despite ongoing concerns that corruption facilitated trafficking, the government arrested and investigated, but did not prosecute or convict, officials who were allegedly complicit in trafficking-related crimes,” the report said.

Malaysia had been on the Tier 2 Watch List for the previous three years.

Malaysia would have been demoted from the Tier 2 Watch List last year but was given a waiver “because the government has devoted sufficient resources to a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute significant efforts to meet the minimum standards,” the 2020 report said.

At least one senior police official had expected Malaysia to move up, the state-run Bernama news agency reported earlier this week.

“We are (trying) to put our efforts on Tier 2 or Tier 1 with countries such as Singapore and the Philippines. We have achieved Tier 2 in 2017, and we will ensure our best-integrated efforts with agencies under MAPO (Anti-Smuggling of Migrants) even though we remained on Tier 2 Watch List last year,” said Abdul Jalil Hassan, the Royal Malaysia Police Criminal Investigations Department director.

Instead, Malaysia returns to Tier 3 for first time since 2014 and joins Myanmar, China, North Korea, Russia and 12 others on the list of countries at the bottom-rung. The 17 nations could be subject to U.S. restrictions of non-humanitarian, non-trade-related funding during the fiscal year beginning in October under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

In addition, President Joseph Biden could move to instruct the U.S. executive director of multilateral development banks and the International Monetary Fund to “deny any loans or other uses of the institutions’ funds to a designated Tier 3 country for most purposes,” the report said.

Malaysian concerns

The report also faulted Malaysia for initiating “57 investigations against employers in the rubber-product manufacturing sector to confirm compliance with housing laws, but it did not investigate these allegations as potential trafficking crimes.”

In December 2020, the Malaysian government filed 19 charges against an unnamed disposable glove manufacturing company, under the Worker’s Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act, for inhumane living conditions in migrant workers’ dormitories.

It also filed 30 charges against another unnamed rubber glove manufacturer following a series of raids where labor inspectors discovered more than 200 foreign workers living in inhumane and unsanitary conditions, the report said.

The government did not report investigating or prosecuting these companies for human trafficking crimes despite credible evidence of debt-based coercion, it said.

A State Department spokesperson identified the companies as Top Glove Sdn Bhd and Brightway Holdings.

In July 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency announced it was blocking imports against Top Glove and its subsidiary, TG Medical Sdn Bhd, over forced labor concerns. Top Glove is the world’s largest maker of medical rubber gloves.

“The evidence reveals multiple International Labor Organization indicators of forced labor, including debt bondage, excessive overtime, retention of identification documents and abusive working and living conditions,” a CBP spokesperson said in a news release at the time.

Top Glove said it employed 19,000 people producing 78.7 billion gloves annually for more than 2,000 customers in 195 countries.

Army personnel set up barbed-wire fencing around dormitory buildings belonging to Top Glove, a rubber-glove manufacturer, in Klang, Malaysia, Nov.17, 2020. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

Thailand’s fall

In dropping Thailand from Tier 2 – its ranking since 2018 – to the Tier 2 Watch List, the State Department said “officials identified significantly fewer victims in 2020 than in previous years, and it continued to make inadequate efforts to protect forced labor victims.”

It said authorities identified 230 trafficking victims in 2020, compared with about 868 victims in 2019, and 631 in 2018.

“Some officials failed to recognize trafficking cases that did not involve physical force or overt signs of coercion, such as delayed or non-payment of wages, debt-based coercion, and document confiscation,” the report said.

“Anecdotal reports suggested some government officials were reluctant to receive complaints or to identify victims due to fears it would indicate law enforcement incompetence or a failure of the government’s efforts to combat trafficking.”

Praise, concern

The Philippines, a Tier 1 nation since 2016, received praise for “demonstrating serious and sustained efforts” to eliminate trafficking.

“These efforts included prosecuting more traffickers than the previous reporting period, including significantly more defendants charged with using child soldiers and sentencing the majority of convicted traffickers to significant terms of imprisonment,” the report said.

Tier 2 nations Bangladesh and Indonesia were praised for increased efforts to eliminate human trafficking in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report credited Bangladesh for opening an investigation against and parliament for revoking the seat of an MP who allegedly was involved in bribing a Kuwaiti official to fraudulently send more than 20,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers to Kuwait.

Indonesia, meanwhile, received praise for investigating, prosecuting and convicting recruitment agents who facilitated the forced labor of Indonesians aboard Chinese fishing boats.

In July 2020, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi expressed “profound concern” during a meeting with her Chinese counterpart over reports that at least 16 Indonesian crew members had died on Chinese-flagged fishing boats, beginning in November 2019.

Meanwhile, the report criticized all five nations over officials’ alleged involvement in trafficking crimes.

“International organizations continued to allege some Bangladeshi officials facilitated trafficking of Rohingya, including by accepting bribes from traffickers to gain access to camps,” it said.

The State Department expressed concern about official complicity in human trafficking offenses in Indonesia while noting that two government officials have been convicted of child trafficking offenses.

Despite its Tier 1 rank, the Philippines was criticized for actions by law enforcement, immigration and diplomatic officials.

“Some corrupt officials allegedly accept bribes to facilitate illegal departures for overseas workers, operate sex trafficking establishments, facilitate production of fraudulent identity documents, or overlook illegal labor recruiters,” the report said.

It alleged that some Thai government officials were “directly complicit in trafficking crimes, including through accepting bribes or loans from business owners and brothels that exploit victims.”

In Tier 3 Malaysia, the report said, corruption continues to undermine anti-trafficking efforts.

“Credible reports indicate some corrupt officials protect brothels, other commercial sex venues, factory owners and fishing vessel owners from raids, inspections, and prosecutions, and collude with traffickers,” the report said.

“Some local police reportedly withhold information from prosecutors to protect traffickers. Some government officials profit from bribes and direct involvement in extortion from and exploitation of migrants.”


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