After the release of the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report in June, Malaysia – one of the United States’ allies in Southeast Asia – was downgraded from Tier 2 Watch List to a Tier 3 ranking.
The TIP report is published annually by the United States Department of State and provides comprehensive information on trafficking in persons worldwide. The report ranks individual governments’ efforts to combat trafficking. Countries ranked on the report’s Tier 2 Watch List do not fully comply with the minimum standards established by the US government under the Trafficking Victim Protection Act (TVPA).
The Watch List ranking is meant to be a final warning to countries before they drop to Tier 3. A Tier 3 ranking is the lowest a country can receive and can result in economic sanctions. Despite this, on September 19th, it was announced that President Obama waived these sanctions on Malaysia, in addition to other politically influential countries given a Tier 3 ranking, including Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Yemen. In doing so, President Obama waived penalties that may have included economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and travel and visa restrictions. There are mixed responses as to whether sanctions actually impact states’ behavior.
According to the TIP Report, Malaysia’s downgrade to Tier 3 was due to its “failure to prevent trafficking and protect victims.” The ranking not only harms Malaysia’s reputation, but also strains its relations with the United States, one of the country’s largest foreign investors.
The report notes various incidences of trafficking in Malaysia, including sex trafficking and forced labor within construction and textile industries. The report also mentions Malaysia has a large refugee/asylee population that is highly vulnerable to trafficking, particularly given Malaysia’s failure to sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Failure to sign denies refugees a formal status and the ability to obtain work permits within the country. Many refugees also incur large smuggling debts and may be subject to debt bondage to pay them back. Government and police corruption further complicates efforts to diminish human trafficking in the country.
I worked in Malaysia this summer and noticed mixed responses to the downgrade from within the country. Some human rights activists support it as evidence of Malaysia’s failed commitment to address human trafficking. Others, especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argue the report is flawed and fails to account for some of the government’s anti-trafficking efforts. While some aspects of the TIP report’s methodology can be criticized, it is nonetheless an important document that is taken seriously by many organizations and agencies within Malaysia.
I agree with the president’s decision to not impose sanctions on Malaysia, as I believe that sanctions would have a limited influence on the Malaysian government’s behavior. Nevertheless, I also believe it is possible for Malaysia to address and improve its efforts to combat human trafficking. The Malaysian government should adopt the recommendations listed in the report, such as improving victim identification efforts, increasing efforts to prosecute trafficking cases, and increasing cooperation with foreign governments in enforcing anti-trafficking law in the region. It should also re-examine its commitment to refugee welfare within its borders. Doing so will address the underlying factors that continue to make Malaysia’s refugee population at risk to traffickers.Print This Post
(Image: Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia. Via Creative Commons)