Every year, the State Department issues a reminder that slavery is alive and well. Its annual trafficking in persons report documents human rights abuses around the world, from girls stolen from their homes and forced into sex work to migrant laborers driven to sweat in the sun from dawn until dusk for no pay. These horror stories, while heartbreaking, are nothing new. What is more surprising is the State Department’s decision to bump up one habitual offender, Malaysia, in this year’s rankings.
The report sorts countries into three categories, or tiers, based on their efforts to eliminate human trafficking. It also places some countries on a Tier 2 watch list. A few classification decisions this time around came under scrutiny: Thailand, now under military rule, stayed where it was; Cuba, which the Obama administration is courting diplomatically, ascended a tier. And so did Malaysia.
Malaysia’s status is most immediately relevant to U.S. policy. Had Malaysia remained in Tier 3, it could not have participated in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the trade and investment treaty the Obama administration has spent the past few months intensively negotiating and fighting for in Congress.
Malaysia’s promotion does not mean the State Department thinks the country is tough enough on human trafficking, or even that it’s close. It merely means Malaysia has made progress. The department’s criteria for a tier change require that a country make concrete commitments to coming into compliance. The report cites, among other steps toward justice, Malaysia’s reformed victim protection regime and an increased number of prosecutions. But despite these legal shifts, life on the ground in Malaysia is grim as ever.
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Malaysia’s human rights abuses in the past year exceed the bounds of trafficking. Prime Minister Najib Razak has been cracking down on civil freedoms to stay in power since losing the popular vote in a 2013 election. Political protesters cannot demonstrate freely. LGBT Malaysians get unfair judgment in sharia courts. This year, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was thrown in prison on trumped-up sodomy charges.
On trafficking, Malaysia is not doing any better. From rural palm oil harvesters on plantations to urban electronics workers in factories, an estimated 2 million Malaysian workers are forced into unpaid labor. Add to that the countless refugees from nearby countries who flee to Malaysia. Many young girls become “domestic workers” subject to miserable conditions and often sexual assault. Other refugees end up in Malaysian trafficking camps and — as Malaysian police discovered in May after the State Department reporting deadline — are shoveled into mass graves when they die of exhaustion.
A move up in the State Department’s trafficking categories essentially amounts to a statutory pat on the back. A move down encourages a country to do better or risk restrictions on aid or funding. Malaysia does not deserve congratulations. It deserves the kind of censure that will force it to change.