The U.S. State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons Report today, which classified countries based on their efforts to combat the practice. There aren’t automatic penalties for countries found to be in violation, but the law does at least suggest that that the U.S. refrain from providing non-humanitarian aid to the worst offenders.
Four countries—Thailand, Malaysia, Venezuela and the Gambia—were downgraded to Tier 3, the report’s lowest ranking, putting them in a group with the likes of North Korea, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The two Southeast Asian countries—both important U.S. security and economic partners—have been getting the most attention.
In Malaysia, according to the report, a “significant number of young foreign women are recruited ostensibly for legal work in Malaysian restaurants, hotels, and beauty salons, but are subsequently coerced into the commercial sex trade.” Additionally, “many migrant workers on agricultural plantations, at construction sites, in textile factories, and in homes as domestic workers throughout Malaysia are exploited and subjected to practices indicative of forced labor, such as restrictions on movement, deceit and fraud in wages, passport confiscation, and imposition of significant debts by recruitment agents or employers.”
In Thailand, the report highlighted the ongoing problem of sex trafficking as well as the abuse of asylum seekers from Burma and Bangladesh and the prevalent practice of forced labor of Thai fishing boats, the subject of a recent investigation by the Guardian.
Thai authorities had been anxiously awaiting the release of the report. The U.S. already suspended $3.5 million in military aid to Thailand following last month’s coup, and while the trafficking problem didn’t just start in the last few weeks, the report isn’t going to help the new government’s efforts to repair the country’s global image.
The report is also worth considering in light of the World Cup. It specifically highlights the role that trafficked labor can play in the preparations for mega-events like the World Cup and the Olympics as well as the heightened risk of sex trafficking during the events themselves.
Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host whose manipulative practices toward foreign laborers have recently become a topic of international interest, was downgraded this year to the “tier 2 watch list,” the second-lowest designation. Russia, the 2018 host, was downgraded to Tier 3 last year.
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