Sarah Sewall, U.S. under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, was questioned last Thursday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the global report on human trafficking.

Sarah Sewall, U.S. under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, was questioned last Thursday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the global report on human trafficking.

On July 27th, the United States Department of State issued the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report. This year’s TIP Report has received pushback for upgrading certain countries with poor human trafficking records, under the suspicion that the upgrades were based on political considerations instead of evaluating the countries on anti-trafficking prevention criteria. The upgrades of Malaysia and Cuba within the TIP Report have garnered particular criticism.

As previously reported on Human Trafficking Search, the TIP Report is the world’s most noted trafficking report. The U.S. Government uses the TIP Report to engage foreign governments in dialogues to advance anti-trafficking reforms. The placement of countries into the various tiers correspond to a country’s efforts to comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. Decisions on tier placement are closely watched and scrutinized and a placement on Tier 3 may result in financial sanctions and negative international attention. For this reason, the placement of countries in the TIP Report is carefully scrutinized by anti-trafficking advocates and governments alike.

One of the most notable placements in the 2015 TIP Report was the upgrading of Malaysia to the Tier 2 Watch List. This past year, in part due to the continuing mass migration of refugees in Southeast Asia, the Malaysian government did not institute many improvements in its anti-trafficking efforts. To this end, in May, an unmarked grave of refugees believed to be caught up in regional human trafficking networks was found along the border of Malaysia and Thailand. Many lawmakers and advocates state that Malaysia’s poor record on human trafficking has benefitted from preferential and political treatment  by the U.S. government due to Malaysia’s future possible participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP),  an ambitious Pacific Rim trade agreement that has been foreign policy priority of the Obama Administration. Malaysia has been a key stakeholder in the TPP which is currently being negotiated. Recent reporting on the deliberations within the State Department for the TIP Report lend credence to the connection between the upgrade of Malaysia and the TPP negotiations, as it has been stated that Malaysia was ranked Tier 3 by the State Department anti-trafficking staff but was then upgraded by other State Department diplomatic staff.

In addition to the decision to upgrade Malaysia, the 2015 TIP Report also removed Cuba from Tier 3 and placed it on the Tier 2 Watch List. Cuba was upgraded despite long-standing reports of child sex trafficking. Motivation thought to be behind the upgrade was the recent history-making re-engagement of the United States with the Cuban government which occurred in December 2014.  Recent improvement in the relations between the two countries include the reopening the Cuban embassy in Washington, DC. It is believed that Obama administration did not want to undermine thawing relations with Cuba with an unfavorable ranking on the TIP Report.

Both examples of upgrading Malaysia and Cuba are disturbing to the legacy of the TIP Report. Political decision-making threatens to undermine the value that the TIP Report has in highlighting the need for government effectiveness and action in combatting human trafficking.

On August 6th the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to discuss the 2015 TIP Report. The hearing was contentious and several Senators demanded greater accountability regarding the 2015 TIP Report rankings. Hopefully the controversy surrounding this year’s rankings will goad the State Department into more data-driven assessments and restore prioritization of anti-trafficking progress over political considerations.

Ashley Feasley is the Director of Advocacy at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, CLINIC.

(Photo Credit: Associated Press)