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US upgrades Malaysia, Cuba in trafficking report

[WASHINGTON] The United States upgraded Malaysia in an annual report on human trafficking on Monday despite calls by human rights groups and nearly 180 US lawmakers to keep the Southeast Asian country on a list of worst offenders in failing to suppress trafficking.

The US 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 straight year, alongside countries with some of the world's worst trafficking records, including Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe.

Malaysia's expected upgrade to so-called "Tier 2 Watch List"status from Tier 3 removes a potential barrier to President Barack Obama's signature 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Congress had approved legislation in June giving Obama expanded trade negotiating powers but prohibiting deals with Tier 3 countries such as Malaysia.

After Reuters reported on July 8 plans to upgrade the country, 160 members of the US House of Representatives and 18 US Senators wrote US Secretary of State John Kerry urging him keep Malaysia on Tier 3, saying they had seen no justification for an upgrade and questioning whether it was motivated by a desire to keep Malaysia in the TPP.

On Monday, the State Department said that while Malaysia does not fully meet minimum standards to eliminate trafficking, it was making significant efforts to do so, citing a proposed strengthening of anti-trafficking laws and a more than doubling in trafficking investigations.

Still, according to the department, Malaysian trafficking convictions declined 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 are still forced into labour and women and children coerced into the sex trade.

The upgrade follows international scrutiny and outcry over Malaysian efforts to combat human trafficking after the discovery in May of scores of graves in people-smuggling camps near its northern border with Thailand.

Mr Kerry next month is expected to visit Malaysia, the current chair of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Washington is seeking to promote unity within the bloc in the face of China's increasingly assertive pursuits of territorial claims in the South China Sea, an object of US criticism.

The report organizes countries into tiers based on trafficking records: Tier 1 for nations that meet minimum US standards; Tier 2 for those that are making 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 US standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.

In its upgrade of Cuba to Tier 2 Watch List status, the report said the country 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 labour in its government-backed overseas work missions that send 51,000 workers to more than 67 countries, but that the Ministry of Labour and Social Security had taken a lead role in a committee responsible for combating sexual violence and sex trafficking.

The upgrade removes a longstanding irritant between the former Cold War foes following the July 1 re-establishment of diplomatic relations, including reopening of embassies in each other's capitals, after more than a half-century of estrangement.

Uzbekistan, which has faced criticism by rights groups over allegations of forced labour in its cotton industry, was upgraded to Tier 2 Watch List from Tier 3. The report cited an Uzbek government decree prohibiting forced child labour in the 2014 cotton harvest and new fines against college directors and farms for using child labour.

"Despite these efforts, serious concerns persist, as government-compelled forced labour of adults remained endemic in the 2014 cotton harvest," it said.

Saudi Arabia was also upgraded from the lowest Tier 3 after what the report described as progress in prosecuting offenders and protecting victims, while Egypt was downgraded to Tier 2 Watch List after failing to increase anti-trafficking efforts compared to the previous year, among other changes.