WASHINGTON (AP) — Failure to meet minimum standards in fighting human trafficking has landed Thailand and Malaysia on a State Department blacklist, a move that could strain relations with two important U.S. partners in Asia.
The department, however, improved its rating of strategic rival China, citing Beijing's steps to abolish re-education through labor camps.
Secretary of State John Kerry launched the annual U.S. assessment of how 188 governments around the world have performed in fighting the flesh trade and other forms of exploitative labor.
Thailand had mounted a determined campaign to prevent a downgrade that could hurt the reputation of its lucrative seafood and shrimp industries, for which the U.S. is a key market.
Thai Ambassador Vijavat Isarabhakdi expressed disappointment, saying the report did not recognize "our vigorous, government-wide efforts that yielded unprecedented progress and concrete results." But he said Thailand would continue to collaborate closely with the U.S.
The Trafficking in Persons Report is one of several annual assessments issued by the department on human rights-related topics, but it's unusual in that it ranks nations, which can ruffle diplomatic feathers. It is based on the actions governments take, rather than on the scale of the problem in their countries. Globally, more than 20 million people are believed to be affected in industries such as mining, construction, the sex trade, and domestic service.
"There cannot be impunity for those who traffic in human beings. It must end," Kerry said, describing it as slavery in the 21st century and an illicit business generating annual profits of $150 billion.
Thailand and Malaysia are among 23 countries to receive the lowest ranking, "tier 3." Incumbents at that level include Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Zimbabwe.
Two other nations were also demoted to that level: Venezuela and Gambia. China, put on tier 3 last year, was elevated to a watch list.
President Barack Obama now has 90 days to determine whether to apply sanctions against tier 3 governments.
The president can block various types of aid and could withdraw U.S. support for loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. But the U.S. often chooses not to, based on its national security interests, as it did last year for China, Russia and Uzbekistan.