US softens view of Malaysia, Cuba in human trafficking report

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The United States took Malaysia off its list of worst offenders in human trafficking on Monday, removing a potential barrier to its joining a signature trade pact despite opposition from human rights groups and nearly 180 U.S. lawmakers.

The U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report also upgraded Cuba from its lowest rank for the first time since it was included in the annual report in 2003.

South Sudan, Burundi, Belize, Belarus and Comoros were downgraded to the lowest rank, Tier 3, where Thailand remained for a second year, alongside countries with some of the world's worst trafficking records, including Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe.

Egypt was downgraded, to the so-called "Tier 2 Watch List" status, while Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan were upgraded to "Tier 2 Watch List."

Malaysia's expected upgrade to the "Tier 2 Watch List" from Tier 3 removes a potential barrier to President Barack Obama's signature 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement, or TPP.

Congress approved legislation in June giving Obama expanded trade negotiating powers, but prohibiting deals with Tier 3 countries such as Malaysia.

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US softens view of Malaysia, Cuba in human trafficking report
In this Monday, May 11, 2015, photo 16-year-old Sadik Hussein, left, and 17-year-old Noor Alam, roll-play as they retell how they were beaten at a human trafficking boat, hours after returning to their homes in Thetkabyin Village, north of Sittwe, western Rakhine state, Myanmar. They say they escaped from a human trafficking boat, where they sat for days with their knees bent into their chest, pressed up against other sweaty bodies in the cabin’s rancid heat. They say members of the crew paced back and forth with iron rods and belts, hitting anyone who dared speak or even vomit from the nauseating stench and rolling waves. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Monday, July 27, 2015, where he released the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report. The State Department has taken Malaysia and Cuba off its blacklist of countries failing to combat modern-day slavery, leaving the U.S. open to criticism that politics is swaying the often-contentious rankings in its annual human trafficking report. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
SHAMLAPUR, BANGLADESH - JULY 4: A photograph of Rohingya trafficking victim Mohammad Aiaz is seen July 4, 2015 in Shamlapur, Bangladesh. On March 5, 2015 Aiaz met a man who promised to take him to a good job in Malaysia for free. He left Bangladesh with 13 other Rohingya. A few days after that his mother, Lila Begum, got a phone call from her son saying he was on the ship and that she needed to pay a man in Teknaf 200,000 taka ($2,570) or he would be killed. She managed to pay 175,000 but she has not heard from her son since. In the past months thousands of Rohingya have landed on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, many of them by way of Bangladesh. The Rohingya pay up to $2,000 to traffickers, and they sail out from Bangladesh's southern coastline on fishing boats to meet larger ships in the deep sea that will take them to Malaysia. UNHCR estimates that there are more than 300,000 Rohingya living in Bangladesh. (Photo by Shazia Rahman/Getty Images)
In this Thursday, May 21, 2015 photo, Mohammed Elias, 45, displays a photograph of his 14-year-old son, who has been missing in a human trafficking ring in Ukhiya, near Cox's Bazar, a southern coastal district about, 296 kilometers (183 miles) south of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Elias has paid ransom to a lady who collected the money from him faking herself as a beggar at Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar district that borders with Myanmar. The traffickers spun stories that were unimaginable to their listeners, many who hailed from tiny Bangladeshi villages where almost no one earns more than a few dollars a day. As a boat people crisis emerged in Southeast Asia in recent weeks, nearly all the focus has been on the Rohingya: the persecuted Muslim minority fleeing Myanmar. But of the more than 3,000 people who have come ashore this month in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, about half were from Bangladesh, according to the U.N. refugee agency, mainly poor laborers seeking better jobs and a brighter future. (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)
In this Friday, May 29, 2015 photo, American actor Matt Dillon, right, shakes hands with Noor Alam, a 17-year old Rohingya survivor of human-trafficking at Thetkabyin village, north of Sittwe in the western state of Rakhine, Myanmar. Dillon puts a rare celebrity spotlight on the plight of Myanmar's long-persecuted Rohingya Muslims, visiting a hot, squalid camp for tens of thousands displaced by violence and a port that has served as one of the main launching pads for their exodus by sea. (AP Photo/Robin McDowell)
An armed Malaysian policeman checks a driver's documentations a day after the government announced the discovery of camps and graves, the first such sites found in Malaysia since a regional human-trafficking crisis erupted earlier this month, near Malaysia-Thailand borders in Wang Kelian on May 25, 2015. A total of 139 grave sites and 28 human-trafficking camps have been found in a remote northern Malaysian border region, the country's top police official told reporters. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A journalist takes photo of 24 alleged human traffickers' pictures displayed on a board, released by Italian police during a press conference in Palermo on April 20, 2015. AFP PHOTO / MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO (Photo credit should read MARCELLO PATERNOSTRO/AFP/Getty Images)
In this Monday, May 11, 2015, photo 16-year-old Sadik Hussein, left, and 17-year-old Noor Alam, hours after returning to their homes in Thetkabyin Village, north of Sittwe, western Rakhine state, Myanmar. They say they escaped from a human trafficking boat, where they sat for days with their knees bent into their chest, pressed up against other sweaty bodies in the cabin's rancid heat. They say members of the crew paced back and forth with iron rods and belts, hitting anyone who dared speak or even vomit from the nauseating stench and rolling waves. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
In this In this Tuesday, May 12, 2015, photo 17-year old Rorbiza rests at camp home of Dapaing, North of Sittwe, western Rakhine state, Myanmar, after escaping from a human trafficking boat. Brokers promise pretty young girls the prospect of arranged marriages in Malaysia, though activists say in recent years many have instead been sold into prostitution.(AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Thai policemen listen to Thai Police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung during a meeting about Anti Human Trafficking at the police headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand , Friday, May 8, 2015. Thailand's national police chief said a powerful mayor was arrested Friday and that more than 50 police officers were under investigation in the country's widening human-trafficking scandal. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
School girls holding placards react to camera as they walk as part of an awareness campaign against human trafficking in Kolkata, India, Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015. The event was organized by the Diocese of Kolkata as part of their Bicentenary celebrations. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)
Community members holds a candlelit vigil in support of the “safe harbor” legislation for child victims of human trafficking, Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014, in Atlanta. State Sen. Renee Unterman, of Buford, wants child victims of human trafficking to be immune from prosecution in Georgia, building on the state’s 2011 crackdown on prostitution and other sexual crimes. Unterman pre-filed the legislation on Thursday before joining about 50 supporters for a candlelight vigil for victims of sex trafficking at an Atlanta church. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
California state Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), left, and Assemblyman Isadore Hall, D-Compton, join prosecutors, lawmakers and police to plot a plan to eradicate human sex trafficking in California and across the nation during the Domestic Human Trafficking symposium in Los Angeles, Friday, April, 25, 2014. According to a 2005 International Labour Organisation paper, human trafficking — or sexual servitude and forced labor — brings in about $32 billion annually, making it the second most profitable criminal enterprise after illegal arms trafficking. The majority of that money, or nearly $28 billion, comes from forced commercial sexual exploitation. The vast majority of those trafficked are women and children, from all milieus of society. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Alexandro Cross, 5, carries a sign during a rally against human trafficking, Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, in Miami. This event was part of the One Billion Rising for Justice, a worldwide event by supporters demanding the arrest of those who participate in domestic violence and human trafficking. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
A speaker addresses EU and police experts during a conference on trafficking in humans, in Warsaw, Poland, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz
A Georgia State Patrol trooper stands next to a portrait of Archibald Bulloch, Georgia's first President and Commander-in-Chief in 1776, as a poster board stands on display during a press conference announcing a new campaign on human trafficking by state lawmakers and law enforcement officials, Monday, March 18, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Parents of missing children open doors of a mini-van, covered by photos and informations about abducted and missing children, while they leave an art gallery that holds a painting exhibition of an artist who supports anti-human trafficking campaigns in Beijing, China, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. Child buyers in China are not subject to criminal prosecution if they do not obstruct rescue efforts or mistreat the children, and legal experts are pushing for a law revision to make it a crime to buy abducted children, Xinhua reported. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)
Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, gestures as she talks about her report on her fact-finding mission in the Philippines Friday Nov. 9, 2012 at the financial district of Makati city, east of Manila. Ezeilo said one of the "issues of concern" is the lack of accurate data and somewhat low-level of awareness knowledge and skills amongst government authorities to identify cases of trafficking in persons. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)
British actress Emma Thompson tells the story of a young woman forced into prostitution during the opening ceremony of Journey, an installation recounting the tale of Elena, a young woman who fell victim to human trafficking, in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Ann Young, at podium, asks the public to help identify other victims of of alleged child pimp, Leroy Bragg, seen in photo, left, during a news conference on Monday, Oct. 4, 2010, in Los Angeles. The 34-year-old Bragg had befriended girls and young women in the Los Angeles area then forced them to work for him. He has been charged with recruiting a 13-year-old girl into prostitution. He has pleaded not guilty to human trafficking, crimes involving a minor and an unrelated burglary. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
In this photo taken on Jan. 21, 2009, Myanmar refugees participate in a demonstration outside the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Malaysian authorities have arrested five immigration officers suspected of taking part in the trafficking of illegal immigrants from Myanmar, police said Tuesday, July 21, 2009. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)
Mita Mandal, right, narrates her story as Swapna Gayen, left, a sex worker and active worker of their union Durbar Women Co-ordination Committee during a press conference of announcement of Media Award on human trafficking and HIV/AIDS in Calcutta, India, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006. The Human Development Resource Network (HDRN), a New Delhi based advocacy and leadership development organization announced four awards for outstanding published reports in print media and four for the Television media covering trafficking and HIV in India, carrying a cash prize of Rupees 25,000 (USD$543) and a certificate each. Mandal was bought by a human trafficker but saved by a women organization and now sings in events supporting social causes. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)
Sex workers and sympathizers demonstrate on April 9, 2015 against the closure of window brothels by the municipality in the red light district in Amsterdam. With Project 1012, the Amsterdam wants to close window prostitution to prevent crime, human trafficking and degradation. AFP PHOTO / ANP / ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN - netherlands out - (Photo credit should read ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
An ethnic Rohingya boy leans on a traffic lane separator used as a partition at a temporary shelter in Langsa, Aceh province, Indonesia, Sunday, May 17, 2015. Boats filled with more than 2,000 Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants have landed in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, and thousands more migrants are believed to be adrift at sea after a crackdown on human traffickers prompted captains and smugglers to abandon their human cargo. (AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara)
Thai policemen listen to Thai Police chief Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung during a meeting about Anti Human Trafficking at the police headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand , Friday, May 8, 2015. Thailand's national police chief said a powerful mayor was arrested Friday and that more than 50 police officers were under investigation in the country's widening human-trafficking scandal. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
In this May 5, 2015 photo, forensic police officer collects items left at an abandoned migrant camp on Khao Kaew Mountain near the Thai-Malaysian border in Padang Besar, Songkhla province, southern Thailand. Thailand is eager to show its newfound toughness on human trafficking, taking reporters on patrols and tours of former camps, cooperating with neighboring countries and the U.S., and arresting dozens of officials - including a high-ranking officer in the military that now controls the country. A discovery of 36 bodies at abandoned traffickers’ camps near Thailand’s southern border with Malaysia has intensified international pressure on Thailand to crack down on smugglers. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
Thai police officials measure a shallow grave in Padang Besar, Songkhla province, southern Thailand, Saturday, May 2, 2015. Police officials in Thailand trekked into the mountains to dig up shallow graves Saturday, after the grim discovery of an abandoned jungle camp renewed calls for a crackdown on the human trafficking networks operating in the Southeast Asian country. (AP Photo/Sumeth Panpetch)
Volunteer officers dismantle an abandoned migrant camp on Khao Kaew mountain near the Thai-Malaysian border in Padang Besar, Songkhla province, southern Thailand, Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Police have found a recently abandoned camp on a forested hillside in southern Thailand believed to have held human trafficking victims, days after the grim discovery of 26 bodies at a separate location exposed a thriving human smuggling network. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)
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After a July 8 Reuters report on plans to upgrade Malaysia, 160 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 18 U.S. senators wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to keep Malaysia on Tier 3. They said there was no justification for an upgrade and questioned whether the plan was motivated by a desire to keep the country in the TPP.

U.S. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Sarah Sewall rejected the notion that any political considerations had influenced Malaysia's ranking.

"No, no, no," she told a news briefing when asked whether the upgrade was connected to a desire to maintain Malaysia's TPP eligibility. She said the decision was based on standards for how well it was dealing with the trafficking problem.

Sewall said Malaysia had made efforts to reform its victim-protection regime and its legal framework, and had increased the number of investigations and prosecutions compared to 2013.

Even so, she said: "We remain concerned that low numbers of trafficking convictions in Malaysia is disproportionate to the scale of Malaysia's human trafficking problem."

Sewall said Cuba, with which the United States reestablished diplomatic relations on July 1 after more than 50 years of Cold War estrangement, was upgraded due to progress in addressing sex trafficking, although Washington remained concerned about its failure to battle forced labor.

Rights groups said Malaysia's upgrade undermined the credibility of the U.S. report.

"Malaysia's record on stopping trafficking in persons is far from sufficient to justify this upgrade," Human Rights Watch said. "This upgrade is more about the TPP and U.S. trade politics than anything Malaysia did to combat human trafficking."

OBAMA ACCUSED OF PUTTING POLITICS AHEAD OF FACTS

Members of Congress who protested against the plan to upgrade Malaysia reacted angrily and accused Obama's administration of putting politics ahead of facts.

Sander Levin, a Michigan Democrat who has campaigned against TPP over labor rights, called Malaysia's upgrade "extremely concerning."

Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who was one of the authors of the law that brought the U.S. trafficking report into being, criticized the decisions to upgrade Malaysia and Cuba as well as relatively lenient ratings given to Vietnam and China.

He said the report had "careened off into a new direction where the facts regarding each government's actions in the fight against human trafficking are given almost no weight when put up against the president's political agenda."

International scrutiny and outcry followed the discovery in May of scores of graves in people-smuggling camps near Malaysia's northern border with Thailand.

The State Department said that while Malaysia was making significant efforts, its trafficking convictions had dropped in the 12 months to March, falling to three from nine in the period covered by the report.

The report also described conditions under which migrants were still forced into labor, and women and children coerced into the sex trade.

Thailand, a key U.S. ally, whose relations with Washington have cooled since a military coup last year, said it "strongly disagrees" with the decision to keep it on the lowest ranking.

A statement from the Thai embassy said this failed to take account of "significant efforts undertaken by the Thai Government on all fronts during the past year."

At a ceremony to honor individuals for their anti-trafficking work, Kerry highlighted a report in Monday's New York Times about a Cambodian man who had been trafficked into Thailand and forced to work on fishing boats, including one on which he was shackled by his neck to prevent him escaping.

"We must never, ever allow a price tag to be attached to the heart and soul and freedom of a fellow human being," Kerry said.

Kerry is expected early next month to visit Malaysia, current chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Thailand is also a member.

Washington is seeking to promote ASEAN unity in the face of China's increasingly aggressive pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea, a subject of U.S. criticism.

The U.S. report organizes countries into tiers based on trafficking records: Tier 1 for nations that meet minimum U.S. standards; Tier 2 for those that make significant efforts to do so; Tier 2 "Watch List" for those that deserve special scrutiny; and Tier 3 for countries that fail to fully comply with the minimum U.S. standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.

In its upgrade of Cuba, the report said Havana was making "significant efforts" to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, including sharing data, improving cooperation, and offering services to trafficking victims.

It said there remained reports of forced labor in Cuba's government-backed overseas work missions that send 51,000 workers to more than 67 countries.

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