Malaysia, Vietnam Upgraded Again in US Government’s Human Trafficking Report

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Malaysia, Vietnam Upgraded Again in US Government’s Human Trafficking Report

This year’s TIP report also reflected the explosion of online scam operations that have involved human trafficking on a massive scale.

Malaysia, Vietnam Upgraded Again in US Government’s Human Trafficking Report

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the launch of the State Department’s 2024 Trafficking in Persons Report in Washington, D.C., June 24, 2024.

Credit: U.S. State Department

Malaysia and Vietnam have been upgraded in the U.S. government’s annual human trafficking index, which also described the massive scale of the online scamming operations that have erupted in other parts of Southeast Asia.

In this year’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, released yesterday, the U.S. State Department scrutinized 188 nations’ efforts to halt human trafficking and punish those responsible. The report sorts nations into three tiers, with its lowest grade (Tier 3) reserved for “countries whose governments do not fully meet the minimum [anti-trafficking] standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” Tier 3 status opens nations to a range of potential sanctions and penalties, though Washington often waives sanctions for close partners and those nations that promise to take swift remedial action.

In 2021, Malaysia was dropped down to the Tier 3 blacklist, with the TIP report stating that forced labor continued to be a serious problem in Malaysia, particularly in the rubber and palm oil industries. Specifically, it said that the authorities continued to conflate human trafficking and migrant smuggling crimes, and did not adequately address or criminally pursue credible allegations of labor trafficking.

The following year, it was joined on Tier 3 by Vietnam, which the report cited for a similar degree of inaction to curb trafficking. In particular, the 2022 report cited a case in which the government took no action against a Vietnamese labor attaché stationed at Vietnam’s embassy in Saudi Arabia and another embassy staffer who was accused of complicity in trafficking several of their citizens.

Both Malaysia and Vietnam were subsequently upgraded to the Tier 2 watchlist last year, and then up to Tier 2 in this year’s report. According to the TIP report, Malaysia was upgraded due to the government’s increasing number of trafficking investigations, its conviction of more traffickers (most of whom received significant sentences), and its efforts at “prosecuting allegedly complicit officials.” Vietnam’s government similarly “demonstrated overall increasing efforts” to fight trafficking, including submitting a new draft of an anti-trafficking law to its legislature and increasing the prosecution of traffickers.

At the same time, the two nations had a lot to do to combat human trafficking effectively. In Malaysia, “Official complicity and corruption undermined anti-trafficking efforts and allowed traffickers to operate with impunity,” while “delays in prosecution, insufficient interagency coordination, and inadequate services for victims discouraged foreign victims from remaining in Malaysia to participate in criminal proceedings.” In Vietnam, “The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes;” it also closed the investigation of the aforementioned diplomat, who “allegedly directly facilitated the labor trafficking of several Vietnamese nationals in Saudi Arabia in 2021.”

The upward trajectory of the two nations was a bright spot in a region where human trafficking continued to be a grave problem, as highlighted by the fact that only two nations – the Philippines and Singapore – were listed as Tier 1. Indeed, the improved anti-trafficking efforts in Malaysia and Vietnam were eclipsed in absolute terms by the continuing region-wide epidemic of online scam operations, in many cases staffed by trafficked workforces made up of tens of thousands of people lured from dozens of countries with promises of legitimate jobs.

It was thus no surprise to see Cambodia and Myanmar, two key nodes of online scam operations, languishing at Tier 3. In the case of Cambodia, which was demoted to the blacklist in 2022, the TIP report highlighted not just official inaction toward trafficking crimes. It also described the complicity of the authorities, including “high-level senior government officials,” in trafficking crimes, including the exploitation of tens of thousands of victims in forced criminality in online scam operations in Cambodia.”

It added, “Some senior government officials and advisors owned – either directly or through businesses – properties and facilities known to be utilized by online scam operators used to exploit victims in labor trafficking and financially benefitted directly from these crimes.”

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, where anti-trafficking efforts “continued to decline dramatically” after the 2021 coup, the military junta “did not effectively address the continued expansion of those operations through which traffickers exploited an estimated 120,000 victims in forced criminality.” As in Cambodia, it also described “regular and increasing reports of military, police, local official, and [ethnic armed organization] corruption and complicity in these operations.”

Laos, the other Southeast Asian country cited as a host for parasitic scam operations, survived demotion from the Tier 2 watchlist. However, the report noted that the government “identified relatively few trafficking victims exploited in SEZs compared to the publicly reported scale of sex and labor trafficking, including in online scam operations, in these locations.”

In addition to these nations, Brunei was also demoted back down to Tier 3. The report found that the government “investigated fewer traffickers, and for the seventh consecutive year did not convict any traffickers under its anti-trafficking law.”