WASHINGTON — Thailand remains among the nearly two dozen countries that are making little to no effort to stop the smuggling of people, while Malaysia has improved its effort to combat human trafficking in the last year, according to a State Department report released Monday.
Although the department’s human trafficking report is released annually, this year it carries added weight because the Obama administration is pushing for the completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a vast trade agreement spanning the Pacific Rim.
Congress recently granted President Obama fast-track powers to complete negotiations on the deal, but it included a caveat that prohibited him from doing so with countries listed in Tier 3 of the report — that is, countries that are not making a significant effort to combat human trafficking.
Most of the countries in Tier 3 have limited ties to the United States, like Equatorial Guinea, or are hostile to US interests, like Syria and Russia.
But Thailand, with its relatively large economy, is a far different case, and its exclusion from the Trans-Pacific Partnership would leave a significant hole in the deal.
Including it in Tier 3 means that the administration would have to waive the penalties that come with being put in the bottom tier of the report in order to make negotiations with Thailand final, a move that would most likely draw fresh criticism from Obama’s liberal supporters, whose opposition nearly scuttled the trade pact.
The State Department report gave Cuba, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia upgrades from the lowest tier, putting them in Tier 2. That has raised concerns from rights groups that the rankings are being influenced by political considerations.
Malaysia’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership also is contingent on an improved ranking. Last week, the United States and Cuba opened embassies in each other’s countries as part of a normalization of relations after a decades-long freeze. Saudi Arabia was upgraded as the United States attempts to reassure the Mideast ally after its nuclear deal with rival Iran.
The latest State Department trafficking report also comes amid rising concern about abuses endured by migrants fleeing war, persecution, and poverty in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, and the plight of young men and women who seek out work only to be forced into slave-like conditions.
Many of the migrants and refugees pay smugglers to move them across borders, and the riskiness of doing so was brought into sharp relief two months ago when thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladeshis were abandoned at sea by traffickers.
Before being left at sea, the refugees and migrants had been held by smugglers in grim conditions aboard rickety wooden boats. Their plight set off a regional crisis that only ended after Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to take them in.
Critics contend that Malaysia has done little to stop smuggling, but was elevated in the rankings to ease its entry into the trade partnership.
“It appears to us that this is a political move to ensure a seamless trade relationship,” said Matthew F. Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, an advocacy group that investigates criminal organizations and government officials involved in human trafficking.
“What message does this send to Malaysia?” he continued, adding that it undermined the purpose of the report “if the message being sent is, ‘Trade trumps human rights.’ ”