The U.S. State Department downgraded Thailand, Malaysia and Venezuela on Friday to its list of the world's worst centers of human trafficking, opening up the countries to possible sanctions and placing them in the same category as North Korea and Syria.
The countries could lose U.S. nonhumanitarian and non-trade-related aid, and they could face U.S. opposition to help from international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The downgrades could also cause some multinational companies to reconsider investments in industries accused of using trafficked labor such as fisheries.
Meanwhile, Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host where more than a million migrant laborers are said to face severe travel restrictions and dangerous working conditions, found itself placed on a watch list for possible downgrade, according to the State Department's 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report.
It puts the Gulf emirate one tier above Thailand. In the Southeast Asian country the majority of trafficking victims — "tens of thousands ... by conservative estimates" — were migrants from neighboring countries who were "forced, coerced, or defrauded into labor or exploited in the sex trade." A significant number were trafficked into the fishing industry, garment production and domestic work.
The three countries were all downgraded to the lowest level, Tier 3, as they did not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Thailand’s downgrade comes despite officials from the country repeatedly expressing prior confidence that it would be upgraded, submitting a 78-page report to the U.S. government in April to make its case.
U.S. Ambassador at-Large Luis CdeBaca, who focuses on trafficking issues, said the White House would make a decision on possible sanctions against Thailand, one of its oldest Asian treaty allies, within about 90 days. Last month, Washington canceled some security cooperation projects with Thailand to protest the country's May 22 military coup.
The State Department also cited media reports of “trafficking-related complicity by Thai civilian and navy personnel in crimes involving the exploitation” of Rohingya Muslims who have fled Myanmar by the tens of thousands over the past year.
Those reports included a story published by Reuters in December that documented a clandestine Thai policy to remove Rohingya from immigration detention centers and deliver them to traffickers and smugglers waiting at sea. Many Rohingya were then ferried back to brutal trafficking camps in Thailand, where some died.
“We have seen interlocutors who we think are actually trying hard, but of course that gets dragged down by the widespread official complicity,” CdeBaca told Reuters. “It’s kind of like an anchor that is holding the folks who seem to be wanting to make a difference back.”
Thailand, Malaysia and Venezuela’s Tier 3 ranking puts them among the world’s most lawless and oppressive countries. A third of Tier 3 countries, among them Mauritania and Yemen, also appear on the United Nations list of least-developed nations. Many Tier 3 countries, like Syria and the Central African Republic, are at war. Others, like Zimbabwe and North Korea, are dictatorships.
In the period the report covered, ending on March 31, the Thai government said it had made "significant progress" in combating human trafficking. It cited data that showed it convicted 225 people for the crime in 2013, compared with 49 in 2012. But despite frequent media and nongovernmental organization reports documenting forced labor among migrants, the State Department report said the Thai government “demonstrated few efforts to address these trafficking crimes."
"Impunity for pervasive trafficking-related corruption continued to impede progress in combating trafficking," the report said.
The report found Malaysia had made "inadequate efforts to improve its flawed victim-protection regime" and had investigated fewer trafficking cases in 2013 than in 2012. The Malaysian downgrade had been largely expected.
Venezuela made insufficient efforts to combat sex trafficking and forced labor, as it had failed to come up with a written plan to bring it into compliance with minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, the State Department found.
In Qatar, where construction has been underway for the 2022 World Cup, the State Department report found severe abuses of migrant workers' rights.
“Qatar is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and, to a much lesser extent, forced prostitution. Approximately 1.2 million men and women — 94 percent of the country’s workforce" — are foreign, the report said. Many of the laborers are from Nepal, Pakistan, India or Bangladesh.
The report cites human rights groups who say workers have died of heart attacks in the country’s extreme heat. Laborers also “face denial of exit permits, threats of deportation, physical or financial harm, physical, mental, and sexual abuse, hazardous working conditions, and squalid living accommodations.”
The State Department report singles out the work sponsorship, or kafala, system, in which workers can’t leave the country without the permission of their employers, who retain their passports. In some cases, recruiters reportedly lure poor migrants to the gas-rich Gulf state, charging exorbitant fees, and then use a debt to control trafficked persons.
Al Jazeera and Reuters